New mechanisms of drug resistance in parasitic protozoa

Annu Rev Microbiol. 1995;49:427-60. doi: 10.1146/annurev.mi.49.100195.002235.


The main line of defense now available against parasitic protozoa--which are responsible for major diseases of humans and domestic animals--is chemotherapy. This defense is being eroded by drug resistance and, with few new drugs in the pipeline, prevention and circumvention of resistance are medical and veterinary priorities. Although studies of resistance mechanisms in parasites have lagged behind similar studies in bacteria and cancer cells, the tools to tackle this problem are rapidly improving. Transformation with exogenous DNA is now possible with all major parasitic protozoa of humans. Hence, putative resistance genes can be tested in sensitive protozoa, allowing an unambiguous reconstruction of resistance mechanisms. Gene cloning, the polymerase chain reaction, and monoclonal antibodies against resistance-related proteins have made it possible to analyze potential resistance mechanisms in the few parasites that can be obtained from infected people. Hence, the prospect of applying new knowledge about resistance mechanisms to parasites in patients is good, even though today virtually all knowledge pertains to parasites selected for resistance in the laboratory. Resistance mechanisms highlighted in this review include: 1. Decrease of drug uptake because of the loss of a transporter required for uptake. This decrease contributes to resistance to arsenicals and diamidines in African trypanosomes. 2. The export of drugs from the parasite by P-glycoproteins and other traffic ATPases. This export could potentially be an important mechanism of resistance, as these proteins are richly represented in the few protozoa analyzed. There are indications that such transmembrane transporters can be involved in resistance to emetine in Entamoeba spp., to mefloquine in Plasmodium spp., and to antimonials in Leishmania spp. 3. The possible involvement of the P-glycoprotein encoded by the Plasmodium falciparum pfmdr1 gene in chloroquine resistance. We present the available data that lead to the conclusion that overproduction of the wild-type version of this protein results in chloroquine hypersensitivity rather than resistance. 4. The involvement of the PgpA P-glycoprotein of Leishmania spp. in low-level resistance to arsenite and antimonials. We raise the possibility that this protein transports glutathione conjugates of arsenite and antimonials rather than the compounds themselves. 5. Loss of drug activation as the main mechanism of metronidazole resistance in Trichomonas and Giardia spp. Recent evidence indicates that a decrease of the proximal cellular electron donor for metronidazole activation, ferredoxin, is the main cause of resistance in Trichomonas. 6. Resistance arising through alteration of drug targets. The amino acid substitutions in the dihydrofolate reductase-thymidylate synthase of Plasmodium spp. are good examples of this mechanism.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antiprotozoal Agents / metabolism
  • Antiprotozoal Agents / pharmacology*
  • Biological Transport
  • Drug Resistance / physiology*
  • Eukaryota / drug effects*
  • Eukaryota / genetics
  • Eukaryota / parasitology
  • Humans
  • Mutagenesis
  • Parasites / drug effects
  • Parasites / genetics
  • Protozoan Infections / drug therapy*


  • Antiprotozoal Agents