The need for new antimalarials is persistent due to the emergence of drug resistant parasites. Here we aim to identify new drug targets in Plasmodium falciparum by phylogenomics among the Plasmodium spp. and comparative genomics to Homo sapiens. The proposed target discovery pipeline is largely independent of experimental data and based on the assumption that P. falciparum proteins are likely to be essential if (i) there are no similar proteins in the same proteome and (ii) they are highly conserved across the malaria parasites of mammals. This hypothesis was tested using sequenced Saccharomycetaceae species as a touchstone. Consecutive filters narrowed down the potential target space of P. falciparum to proteins that are likely to be essential, matchless in the human proteome, expressed in the blood stages of the parasite, and amenable to small molecule inhibition. The final set of 40 candidate drug targets was significantly enriched in essential proteins and comprised proven targets (e.g. dihydropteroate synthetase or enzymes of the non-mevalonate pathway), targets currently under investigation (e.g. calcium-dependent protein kinases), and new candidates of potential interest such as phosphomannose isomerase, phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase, signaling components, and transporters. The targets were prioritized based on druggability indices and on the availability of in vitro assays. Potential inhibitors were inferred from similarity to known targets of other disease systems. The identified candidates from P. falciparum provide insight into biochemical peculiarities and vulnerable points of the malaria parasite and might serve as starting points for rational drug discovery.
Keywords: Drug target; Gene essentiality; Phylogenomics; Plasmodium falciparum.