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Two series of new semisynthetic triterpene derivatives: differences in anti-malarial activity, cytotoxicity and mechanism of action

Gloria NS da Silva12, Nicole RG Maria1, Desirée C Schuck2, Laura N Cruz2, Miriam S de Moraes2, Myna Nakabashi2, Cedric Graebin3, Grace Gosmann1, Célia RS Garcia2 and Simone CB Gnoatto1*

Author Affiliations

1 Phytochemistry and Organic Synthesis Laboratory, School of Pharmacy, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, 90610-000, Brazil

2 Plasmodium Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, Department of Physiology, São Paulo University, São Paulo, 05508-900, Brazil

3 Department of Chemistry, Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Seropedica, 23897/000, Brazil

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Malaria Journal 2013, 12:89  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-12-89

Published: 9 March 2013



The discovery and development of anti-malarial compounds of plant origin and semisynthetic derivatives thereof, such as quinine (QN) and chloroquine (CQ), has highlighted the importance of these compounds in the treatment of malaria. Ursolic acid analogues bearing an acetyl group at C-3 have demonstrated significant anti-malarial activity. With this in mind, two new series of betulinic acid (BA) and ursolic acid (UA) derivatives with ester groups at C-3 were synthesized in an attempt to improve anti-malarial activity, reduce cytotoxicity, and search for new targets. In vitro activity against CQ-sensitive Plasmodium falciparum 3D7 and an evaluation of cytotoxicity in a mammalian cell line (HEK293T) are reported. Furthermore, two possible mechanisms of action of anti-malarial compounds have been evaluated: effects on mitochondrial membrane potential (ΔΨm) and inhibition of β-haematin formation.


Among the 18 derivatives synthesized, those having shorter side chains were most effective against CQ-sensitive P. falciparum 3D7, and were non-cytotoxic. These derivatives were three to five times more active than BA and UA. A DiOC6(3) ΔΨm assay showed that mitochondria are not involved in their mechanism of action. Inhibition of β-haematin formation by the active derivatives was weaker than with CQ. Compounds of the BA series were generally more active against P. falciparum 3D7 than those of the UA series.


Three new anti-malarial prototypes were obtained from natural sources through an easy and relatively inexpensive synthesis. They represent an alternative for new lead compounds for anti-malarial chemotherapy.

Plasmodium falciparum; Anti-malarial; Mitochondrial membrane potential; β-haematin; Betulinic acid; Ursolic acid; Semisynthesis