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Lumefantrine is an antimalarial drug which means that it fights the parasites that cause malaria. Also known as benflumetol, it is a synthetic compound derived from the organic hydrocarbon fluorene. The drug is never used on its own; instead, it is always paired with a derivative of another antimalarial drug known as artemisinin. As a combination therapy, lumefantrine and artemisinin have been shown to be highly effective against the mild or moderate cases of malaria they are used to treat.
Lumefantrine was developed by a team of Chinese scientists led by Professor Zhou Yiqing at the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology in Beijing. It was first used in 1987 in China. The combination therapy perhaps most associated with lumefantrine is marketed by Novartis Pharmaceuticals as Coartem®.
Malaria is spread by mosquito bites which allow parasites from the Plasmodium family to enter the blood stream and travel to the liver. The parasite stays in the liver for a period of time ranging from ten days to a few months or even, occasionally, years. It then begins to reproduce and attack red blood cells. The symptoms of malaria can be severe, even leading to coma and death. Like artemisinin, lumefantrine attacks and destroys the malaria parasites when they are active in the blood cells.
The discovery of lumefantrine and its beneficial properties as part of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) can best be seen in regions where strains of malaria have become resistant to older therapies. In particular, the drug combination has been important for taking the place of traditional therapies based on chloroquine or quinine. ACT therapies are believed to have saved many thousands of lives in the countries that are hardest hit by malaria, including those in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, lumefantrine therapy can be hard on patients. The course of treatment calls for patients to take one dose of the ACT per day for two days followed by two doses per day for four days. The therapy can cause extreme nausea, muscle weakness, fatigue, and other symptoms — it can even, ironically, cause symptoms also associated with malaria. Nevertheless, patients with mild to moderate malaria who take the drug generally begin to see improvement within days, and studies have reported cure rates in the 95% to 99% range.