University of Leicester scientists' malaria discovery

Mosquito in flight
Image caption Malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, kills about one million people a year

Medical scientists from the University of Leicester say they have made an important breakthrough in the fight against malaria.

The disease is caused by the malaria parasite Plasmodium, injected into the skin by the bite of a female mosquito.

The researchers have found new ways the parasite survives in the bloodstream and are confident they can now develop better drugs to fight the disease.

Malaria causes one million deaths a year, most of them in children.

Drug resistant

The advance is a result of an international collaboration between the French Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale and the UK team, working at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology in Glasgow and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland, now relocating to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Professor Christian Doerig from Monash University, who led the research with the University of Leicester's Professor Andrew Tobin, said: "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 protein kinases from working, then we will 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," he said.

Professor Tobin added: "The parasite is very clever at adapting to drug treatments and in so doing becoming resistant to drugs.

"To avoid the catastrophic affects of widespread resistance to anti-malarial treatments, we need a continued pipeline of new anti-malaria drugs. Our discovery provides one avenue towards populating such a pipeline."

Child deaths

Earlier in November, a team of researchers from the Sanger Institute in Cambridge discovered how the most deadly malaria parasite entered red blood cells, offering "great hope" for the development of a vaccine.

Up to 300 million people a year are affected by malaria worldwide with most of the fatalities in children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The human immune system struggles to build up resistance to malaria and researchers have so far been unsuccessful in developing a vaccine against the disease.

Professor Tobin added: "It seems perfectly realistic to us that we can now develop novel anti-malaria drugs based on the findings we have made, it is certainly a big moment in our fight against this terrible disease that mainly affects the world's poorest people."

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

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