Australian researchers have managed to block a crucial step in malaria’s life cycle, a major breakthrough that could lead to new drugs that fight malaria.
Australians have managed to block the gateway that allows malaria parasites (Plasmodium falciparum) to hijack human red blood cells, a major breakthrough in the fight against the disease.
A team of researchers involving scientists from Deakin University, the Burnet Institute and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, used two different genetic techniques to block the gateway – and both caused the malaria parasite to die.
The research, which was published in Nature, opens the door for new anti-malaria drugs that target components of this gateway. Currently there’s only one drug, artemisinin, available to treat the disease.
After entering the human bloodstream, malaria parasites invade red blood cells and cause them to stick to the walls of blood vessels, where the parasites remain hidden from the immune system while they suck up nutrients and grow quickly.
The parasites are able to control our red blood cells by sending out proteins through their membrane. This research has shown that, while there are many proteins, there is only one gateway in the parasite membrane through which they enter the red blood cells – and it can be blocked.
This is an important breakthrough, because this single gateway in the parasite membrane allows the transmission of up to 350 key survival proteins at every stage of the parasite’s lifecycle.
“This is a major advance in the quest for new malaria drugs. If we can discover a drug that blocks the protein complex that comprises this gateway, you can effectively block the functioning of several hundred proteins,” said Brendan Crabb, the Director and CEO of the Burnet Institute, and a co-author of the paper, in a press release.
Prior to this, the researchers knew this gateway existed, but had no evidence that it was the only gateway that all the parasite proteins relied upon.
“Now that we know that there is only one gateway through which all these parasite proteins, with diverse functions, can enter the host red blood cell, we can develop drugs to block the gateway, which will kill the parasite and stop its spread,” said Tania de Koning-Ward, an Associate Professor at Deakin University and one of the leaders of the team, in a Deakin story on the breakthrough.
“Not only can we block the gateway in the red blood cell stages, but we can also target the parasite at all of its life stages, including the parasite form that transmits to mosquitos, as the proteins that make up the gateway are also present in these other stages,” said de Koning-Ward.
To turn this research into a drug could take 10 to 15 years, de Koning-Ward adds, but with malaria killing more than 500,000 people each year, this is a crucial first step.