EPO- the doping drug known from professional cycling- can significantly reduce cerebral malaria related deaths, according to the researchers at the University of Copenhagen.
When more than 700,000 people die from malaria each year it is due to two grave complications, which the malaria parasites manage to cause before they are eliminated by malaria drugs: Cerebral malaria and serious anemia.
These two complications are the cause of almost every malaria-related death. Cerebral malaria is responsible for half of all malaria related deaths.
EPO is naturally produced in the kidneys from where it sends signals to the bone marrow to produce more red blood corpuscles. But it is also produced in a number of other tissues for example the brain.
"EPO is an active molecule in the brain where it can protect the brain cells from damage and disease," said Doctor Jorgen Kurtzhals, associate professor at the Centre for Medical Parasitology (CMP).
Researchers have found that children with high levels of EPO in their cerebrospinal fluid have less risk of dying from brain malaria.
"Our laboratory team has studied whether we can treat mice, which are infected with cerebral malaria, with EPO and the results are striking. The risk of dying drops from 100 percent to nearly 0," said Kurtzhals.
"It is still necessary to treat a malaria infection with the current drugs, but EPO can be part of the treatment because it protects the brain while the malaria drugs kill the parasite," he said.
"We know EPO increases the number of red blood cells and their content of the red protein hemoglobin, and this increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported to the body's tissue and cells. This is the effect some athletes and professional cyclists abuse by increasing the outcome of each breath.
"But besides this effect, EPO also increases the level of hemoglobin in other cells, and this could be the reason why it protects brain cells against brain malaria," said Kurtzhals.