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Could Viagra make it harder to spread malaria?

The drug that comes in a little blue pill could help keep malaria contained by stiffening up the parasite that causes it, say researchers.

It's possible that Viagra, aka Sildenafil, could make it harder for mosquitoes to spread malaria.Felix E. Guerrero via Flickr

Just saying the word "Viagra" can lead to flustered faces and suppressed laughter. We all know what Viagra is used for and what part of the body it affects, and we're all presumably mature adults who can rise above such juvenile behavior to confront a serious subject.

It seems the famed boner-producing drug may be able to help combat the scourge of malaria.

Researchers from the Pasteur Institute in Paris found that drugs like Viagra may be effective in preventing malaria from spreading from person to person by stiffening up the parasite that causes it, according to a May 16 story in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Malaria parasites are typically transmitted from person to person via mosquito bites. The parasites can be found in red blood cells. Normally, these infected blood cells pass through the spleen undetected. According to the Herald, "Using an artificial spleen, the team found that certain drugs such as Viagra, also known as sildenafil, could stiffen these cells by inhibiting an enzyme that would normally make them squishy. The stiff cells are then cleared by the spleen."

More specifically, according to the study, published May 7 in the online journal PLOS Pathogens, the drugs make the parasites less flexible, which in turn changes the shape of the blood cells so that they're more likely to be detected by the spleen. So, theoretically, with fewer infected cells around, the chances of them getting picked up by mosquitoes and transmitted would go down.

"Blocking Plasmodium falciparum [a common malaria parasite] transmission to mosquitoes has been designated a strategic objective in the global agenda of malaria elimination," the paper's abstract said. The authors suggested that their work could lead to the development of drugs that could block transmission of malaria.

The World Health Organization in December 2014 estimated that 198 million people were infected with malaria in 2013, and that malaria caused 584,000 deaths that year.

This isn't the first group of researchers to look for alternative uses of Viagra. A study announced by the University of Bonn in 2013 found that the drug could be useful in burning fat. Another study, published in 2010 in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, found that drugs like Viagra and Cialis could be effective in treating altitude sickness.

Viagra may even be useful if you're trying to keep your green thumb. A study published back in 1999 in the British Medical Journal reported finding that it was possible to prolong the life of cut flowers by dissolving a Viagra tablet in water. According to the report, the flowers could retain their straightness for as long as a week beyond their natural lifespan. It didn't say if the flowers should see a doctor if they remained straight for longer than four weeks.