Malaria currently infects over 225 million people globally, accounting for almost 800,000 deaths per year according to the World Health Organization. An international team of scientists has now achieved a breakthrough in the fight against malaria. The findings, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications, open the doors for the development of new drugs against the deadly disease.

Every 45 seconds a child dies of malaria in Africa, a country with the highest mortality rate amongst children, with malaria accounting for about 20% of all childhood deaths. The disease is caused by the malaria parasite Plasmodium, which is transmitted through bites of the female Anopheles mosquito.

In a study, funded by The Wellcome Trust, the European Commission, Inserm and EPFL, a collaboration of international researchers have discovered new ways in which the malarial parasite survives in the bloodstream of its victims.

The breakthrough has been achieved thanks to a collaboration between medical scientists at the University of Leicester in the UK and a team from the French Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (Inserm) working at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology in Glasgow and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland), now relocating to Monash University in Melbourne (Australia).

Study leader Professor Andrew Tobin, of the Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology, at the University of Leicester and Professor Christian Doerig, now at Monash University declared:

“I am proud to be involved in a collaboration that has made such an impact on malaria research. Our study opens new avenues for researchers to look for new drugs that treat malaria.

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 proteins kinases from working then we 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.”

Professor Tobin declared:

“It seems perfectly realistic to us that we can now develop novel anti-malaria drugs based on the findings that we have made – it certainly is a big moment in our fight against this terrible disease that mainly affects the world’s poorest people.”

However, Tobin and Doerig also issue a warning, explaining:

“The parasite is very clever at adapting to drug treatments and in so doing becoming resistant to drugs. In fact, there is already evidence that the parasite is developing resistance to the most recent front line treatment for malaria. To avoid the catastrophic effects 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.”

Written by Petra Rattue