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Keywords:

  • malaria;
  • antimalarial drug;
  • artemisinin;
  • artesunate;
  • embryotoxicity;
  • unconfirmed malaria

Abstract

Rat studies suggest that artemisinin-induced decreases in reticulocyte count are a marker for embryotoxicity (in one study, r = 0.82; p < 0.05). In clinical studies, therapeutic doses of artemisinins induced decreases in reticulocyte count that were larger in five of six groups of healthy volunteers (mean decreases of 47–75%) than in 12 groups of patients with malaria (mean decreases of 0–34% and incidences of low reticulocyte count of 0.6–18%). Malaria causes hypoferremia and drug concentrates in infected red cells so, among the explanations for the lesser decreases in patients, is that malaria protects against artemisinin-induced decreases in reticulocyte count by reducing the target tissue levels of active drug and/or ferrous iron which activates the drug to toxic free radicals. The disease could also protect against embryotoxicity in which case pregnant women without malaria would be at greater risk of artemisinin-induced embryotoxicity. Malaria protection against artesunate toxicity has been observed in rats. No artemisinin-induced embryotoxicity has been identified in limited numbers of women with confirmed malaria in the first trimester. However, in large parts of tropical Africa, malaria treatment is based on fever rather than confirmation of parasitemia and many pregnant women without malaria are exposed to antimalarials. No clinical studies have been conducted on uninfected women for whom pregnancy was identified and then an artemisinin was administered subsequently. Testing in rats and/or humans is needed to determine if malaria protects against reticulocytopenia and embryotoxicity and whether the parasite is a more or less sensitive target than the embryo and reticulocyte. Birth Defects Research (Part A), 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.