Scientists just blocked the world’s most widespread malaria parasite from hijacking this vital protein

An international team of researchers has made a double-pronged breakthrough discovery in the world of medical science, according to research published today in Science. The team is credited with discovering how the world’s most widespread malaria parasite works – and how to stop it.

Scientists just blocked the world’s most widespread malaria parasite from hijacking this vital protein

The researchers discovered that Plasmodium vivax (P. vivax) – the offender in question – works by hijacking a protein that the body cannot live without, namely the human transferrin receptor protein, which delivers iron to the body’s nascent red blood cells. After having successfully made this identification, the team, led by Melbourne researchers but comprising researchers from the UK, Singapore, Brazil and elsewhere, were able to develop antibodies that precluded the parasite from infiltrating the blood.


The study, which was led by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham and Dr Jakub Gruszczyk, brings an end to decades of confoundment among the medical community regarding the deadly parasite’s operation, which has hitherto been remarkably difficult to chart. “The parasite can lie dormant in the liver for months on end without causing any symptoms, which makes it very sneaky and very difficult to treat,” explained Associate Professor Tham.

But that was then, and this is now, with huge windows of opportunity having been opened thanks to the team’s breakthrough; Associate Professor Tham asserted that the discovery had brought the world one step closer to a vaccine against P. vivax malaria. This, she flagged up, could have potentially huge ramifications: “P. vivax currently inflicts a huge burden on global health. It is the most common malaria parasite in countries outside of Africa, with more than 16 million clinical cases recorded each year.” The findings did indeed mark “a major breakthrough and important step towards malaria elimination”.


The antibodies themselves were developed using a complex system of 3D mapping to accurately target the protein’s shape. Dr Gruszczyk explained that the team used the Australian Synchotron in Melbourne to create such a map, which facilitated the intricate design of antibodies so as to block the parasite from entering the blood. The experiment yielded positive results worldwide, with Pacific country participants Brazil and Thailand also exhibiting successful blockage.

In a further flurry of uplifting news, the approach could be levelled towards other infectious diseases. Study collaborator Dr Jonathan Abraham of Harvard University flagged up that the “Transferrin receptor is also co-opted by five viruses that cause Ebola-like diseases in South America” – diseases known as New World haemorrhagic fevers. “Our increasing understanding of how several pathogens are taking advantage of transferrin receptor, means we are getting closer to disrupting infection for a number of deadly diseases,” he concluded.

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