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Malaria research breakthrough

14th July 2008

Scientists in Australia say they have identified an important way in which the malaria parasite clings to the surface of red blood cells, paving the way for new drugs to treat the killer disease.

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Around 600 million get sick from malaria around the world annually, and three million die. Most at risk are children and pregnant women.

The parasite is carried by infected mosquitoes and is injected into humans when the mosquito bites. It infects healthly red blood cells, turning them into "sticky sacks" in which the parasite replicates itself.

It avoids being flushed out of the bloodstream by the spleen by sticking to the inside of blood vessel walls.

Scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research have found key elements in the parasite’s “sticky sack” adhesion strategy, identifying eight new proteins that transport the parasite’s major adhesion factor, PfEMP1, to the surface of infected red cells.

Removal of just one of these proteins disrupts the ability of the parasite bag to stick to blood vessel walls, the report in a study published in the journal Cell.

The discovery has enhanced understanding of how the parasite commandeers the red blood cell for its own survival and avoids human immune defences, the team wrote.

They said their findings also suggested that a drug that inactivates an essential adhesion protein would be an effective anti-malarial.

Currently available malaria drugs work by disrupting the metabolism or biological function of the parasite, but resistance to such medicines is growing as the parasite evolves in new ways to avoid them.

Experts at the Institute and a large number of international collaborators concluded that targeting the "stickiness" strategy would result in the inability of the parasite to prevent its transport to the human spleen, leading to its natural destruction.

The team had the support of the Wellcome Trust, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health

 

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