In a major scientific and medical breakthrough, scientists have identified a single blood cell molecule through which the malaria parasite can enter the blood stream.
The team, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, believe their discovery could prove to be fatal for the disease’s most deadly Plasmodium falciparum parasite.
It is now hoped the finding could lead to the development of a malaria vaccine or a new range or treatments within the next two years.
Health experts believe any treatments that are developed as a result of the discovery could be incredibly effective.
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The lead researcher and senior co-author of the findings, Dr Gavin Wright, commented: “Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process.
“Our research seems to have revealed an Achilles' heel in the way the parasite invades our red blood cells.
He added: “It is rewarding to see how our techniques can be used to answer important biological problems and lay the foundations for new therapies.”
Meanwhile, Wright’s fellow author and Sanger Institute colleague, Dr Julian Rayner, said: “By identifying a single receptor that appears to be essential for parasites to invade human red blood cells, we have also identified an obvious and very exciting focus for vaccine development.
“The hope is that this work will lead towards an effective vaccine based around the parasite protein.”
There is currently no vaccine for malaria, which is estimated to kill one million people every year, mainly children aged under five in sub-Saharan Africa.
The common belief among health and science experts is that the most effective and cheapest way to protect vast populations against the disease would be through the administration of a vaccine.
Professor Adrian Hill, from the Jenner Institute in Oxford, UK, added: “Recent reports of some positive results from ongoing malaria vaccine trials in Africa are encouraging, but in the future more effective vaccines will be needed if malaria is ever to be eradicated.
“The discovery of a single receptor that can be targeted to stop the parasite infecting red blood cells offers the hope of a far more effective solution.”
The findings have been published in the journal Nature.
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