There are a few mechanisms by which antiprotozoan drugs target infectious protozoans. Some are antimetabolites, such as atovaquone, proguanil, and artemisinins. Atovaquone, in addition to being antifungal, blocks electron transport in protozoans and is used for the treatment of protozoan infections including malaria, babesiosis, and toxoplasmosis. Proguanil is another synthetic antimetabolite that is processed in parasitic cells into its active form, which inhibits protozoan folic acid synthesis. It is often used in combination with atovaquone, and the combination is marketed as Malarone for both malaria treatment and prevention.
Artemisinin, a plant-derived antifungal first discovered by Chinese scientists in the 1970s, is quite effective against malaria. Semisynthetic derivatives of artemisinin are more water soluble than the natural version, which makes them more bioavailable. Although the exact mechanism of action is unclear, artemisinins appear to act as prodrugs that are metabolized by target cells to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) that damage target cells. Due to the rise in resistance to antimalarial drugs, artemisinins are also commonly used in combination with other antimalarial compounds in artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT).
Several antimetabolites are used for the treatment of toxoplasmosis caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. The synthetic sulfa drug sulfadiazine competitively inhibits an enzyme in folic acid production in parasites and can be used to treat malaria and toxoplasmosis. Pyrimethamine is a synthetic drug that inhibits a different enzyme in the folic acid production pathway and is often used in combination with sulfadoxine (another sulfa drug) for the treatment of malaria or in combination with sulfadiazine for the treatment of toxoplasmosis. Side effects of pyrimethamine include decreased bone marrow activity that may cause increased bruising and low red blood cell counts. When toxicity is a concern, spiramycin, a macrolide protein synthesis inhibitor, is typically administered for the treatment of toxoplasmosis.
Two classes of antiprotozoan drugs interfere with nucleic acid synthesis: nitroimidazoles and quinolines. Nitroimidazoles, including semisynthetic metronidazole, which was discussed previously as an antibacterial drug, and synthetic tinidazole, are useful in combating a wide variety of protozoan pathogens, such as Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica, and Trichomonas vaginalis. Upon introduction into these cells in low-oxygen environments, nitroimidazoles become activated and introduce DNA strand breakage, interfering with DNA replication in target cells. Unfortunately, metronidazole is associated with carcinogenesis (the development of cancer) in humans.
Another type of synthetic antiprotozoan drug that has long been thought to specifically interfere with DNA replication in certain pathogens is pentamidine. It has historically been used for the treatment of African sleeping sickness (caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma brucei) and leishmaniasis (caused by protozoa of the genus Leishmania), but it is also an alternative treatment for the fungus Pneumocystis. Some studies indicate that it specifically binds to the DNA found within kinetoplasts (kDNA; long mitochondrion-like structures unique to trypanosomes), leading to the cleavage of kDNA. However, nuclear DNA of both the parasite and host remain unaffected. It also appears to bind to tRNA, inhibiting the addition of amino acids to tRNA, thus preventing protein synthesis. Possible side effects of pentamidine use include pancreatic dysfunction and liver damage.
The quinolines are a class of synthetic compounds related to quinine, which has a long history of use against malaria. Quinolines are thought to interfere with heme detoxification, which is necessary for the parasite’s effective breakdown of hemoglobin into amino acids inside red blood cells. The synthetic derivatives chloroquine, quinacrine (also called mepacrine), and mefloquine are commonly used as antimalarials, and chloroquine is also used to treat amebiasis typically caused by Entamoeba histolytica. Long-term prophylactic use of chloroquine or mefloquine may result in serious side effects, including hallucinations or cardiac issues. Patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency experience severe anemia when treated with chloroquine.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology