Scientists believe they have discovered the malaria parasite’s Achilles heel after identifying the group of proteins the disease needs to survive in the human body.
Researchers at the University of Leicester, with teams from Lausanne in Switzerland, and Canada, hope their discovery will provide a breakthrough in battling the disease, which causes more than 780,000 deaths every year.
Andrew Tobin, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Leicester, told Sky News:
“What we’re able to do here in the lab is to grow the human malarial parasite in culture. It’s a single cell organism that’s able to go into red blood cells.
“We’ve found 36 proteins which are essential for the parasites to survive and we are now using the might of major pharmaceutical companies, to target those 36 proteins that we’ve discovered.
“And the drugs that we are developing will attack the parasite wherever it is in the body.”
According to the World Health Organisation, malaria infects 225m people worldwide each year.
In Africa, a child dies every 45 seconds from the disease, where it is responsible for one in every five childhood deaths.
The malaria parasite gets into the bloodstream through the bite of the anopheles mosquito.
From there, it makes its way inside the red blood cells – where it is protected from the body’s immune response.
But if scientists can target the proteins within the cell that the parasite needs to survive, they can kill the parasite inside the red blood cell and stop the disease in its tracks.
Professor Christian Doerig, now based at Monash University in Melbourne, but who worked on the research in Switzerland, explained: “We have shown that a crucial element that is required by malaria parasites to survive in the human blood stream is a group of enzymes called protein kinases.
“If we stop these proteins kinases from working then we kill the malaria parasites.
“We are now looking for drugs that do exactly that – stop the protein kinases from working. If we find these drugs then we will have a new way of killing the malaria parasite.”
Save the Children’s Head of Child Health, Simon Wright, said: “It’s great to have a breakthrough for a disease which doesn’t get enough funding and enough research and that’s mainly because it doesn’t affect people in rich countries.
“But the question is always going to be have we got the funding, the health workers, the infrastructure in place to get it to every child?”
The team’s research, just published in the Nature Communications journal, will now be opened up to scientists across the globe to help develop a drug to target this group of proteins.
Professor Tobin said: “It seems perfectly realistic to us that we can now develop novel anti-malaria drugs based on the findings that we have made – it certainly is a big moment in our fight against this terrible disease that mainly affects the world’s poorest people.”