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Identifying malaria's Achilles' heel

Close up of a mosquito
Malaria causes some 800,000 deaths every year

Scientists studying malaria believe they may have made a crucial breakthrough which could lead to the development of an effective vaccine against the disease.

Using a novel screening technique developed at the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Institute researchers have been studying the way the parasite responsible for transmitting the disease - plasmodium falciparum - invades human red blood cells.

Writing in the latest edition of the journal Nature they say they have identified a key interaction, between a single receptor on the surface of the blood cell and a protein on the parasite, that seems to be essential for this invasion to take place.

That could be the plasmodium parasite's Achilles heel, because it offers an exciting new target for drug development. Designing a vaccine that blocks the interaction could prevent the parasite from gaining a foothold in the blood and triggering the symptoms and mortality associated with the disease.

"Because we know this interaction is essential," says Dr Julian Rayner, "we could vaccinate with one component of that interaction, the parasite protein. Then people would be pre-primed with antibodies so that when the parasites emerged into their bloodstream the immune system would be there ready to stop them invading red blood cells".

Developing a vaccine against malaria would be the simplest and most cost-effective way to protect people against the disease. An important consideration since roughly half the world's population are at risk of infection, mostly living in the world's poorest countries. According to the World Health Organisation there are around 225 million cases a year and some 800,000 deaths - mostly children under five in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is already one experimental vaccine against malaria - Mosquirix - in the final stages of clinical testing. Developed by GlaxoSmithKline with funding from the Gates Foundation its been shown to be around 50% effective in early trials.

That's a huge advance according to Dr Rayner, but a vaccine based on the interaction they have identified could prove even more effective. Work with scientists at Oxford University to develop a vaccine has already started.

"We're really actively trying to put ourselves out of a job with this. We're hoping to do our first trials for safety in humans within about two years if things go well," he says.

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