Australian scientists have identified a potential new way to combat malaria by pinpointing proteins that help the disease hijack red blood cells. The malaria parasite infects the cells, forcing them to change shape, which helps it spread through the body. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney.
Researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne think their discovery is a major breakthrough in the fight against a disease that kills up to three million people around the world each year.
They have identified a mechanism that enables malaria-infected red blood cells to stick to the walls of blood vessels.
The malaria parasite deposits a glue-like substance that makes the cells adhesive. It then stops them from being passed through the spleen, where the parasites would usually be destroyed by the immune system.
Using genetic tests of the parasite, the Australian scientists identified eight proteins that allow the parasite's "glue" onto the surface of an infected red blood cell. Removing one of these proteins stops the cell from attaching itself to the walls of blood vessels.
Proteins are nature's building blocks. They are large molecules that are essential for the function of cells in the body.
Professor Alan Cowman, who is part of the research team in Melbourne, says the discovery could become a major weapon against malaria.
"This stickiness is important in disease. It's an important process in causing the malaria disease and if we target those proteins with either drugs or potentially as vaccine targets then we block their function and therefore block the stickiness of the malaria-infected red blood cells," he said. "If we block the stickiness we essentially block the virulence or the capacity of the parasite to cause disease."
Every year, between 350 and 500 million people around the world are infected with malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Most are in developing nations in Africa and Asia, as well as some South Pacific island nations.