Key malaria parasite discovery raises vaccine hopes
[LONDON] Hopes for a vaccine that would be effective against many different types of the deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, have been raised by research published today.
Researchers have discovered a single mechanism that the parasite relies on to invade human red blood cells.
"Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process," said Gavin Wright, senior co-author of the study and a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, United Kingdom. "Our research seems to have revealed an Achilles' heel in the way the parasite invades our red blood cells."
Once they have invaded red blood cells, parasites multiply and spread, causing malaria symptoms. To gain entry into the cells the parasites lock onto various receptors that lie on their surface.
One of the challenges for researchers has been that, although several red blood cell receptors have previously been identified, none is essential for entry. The new work has found a single receptor that is absolutely required by the parasite to invade. The finding applies to all 15 strains of P. falciparum that were tested.
The researchers said that a vaccine could consist of a safe version of the parasite, which would cause the immune system to produce antibodies that swing into action under attack from the real parasite. Such a vaccine could take up to 15 years to produce.