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Weakness discovered in malaria parasite could lead to new treatment

Published on 15/06/17 at 11:00am

A protein has been newly discovered that could lead to an alternative form of vaccination against the spread of malaria parasites. The protein, named PfAP2-I, allows the malaria parasite to invade red blood cells, where it is then able to multiply and spread.

The discovery could allow new forms of treatment and vaccination that specifically targets the protein that is used by malaria to spread through the body. This would bypass the fact that anti-malarial drug resistance is on the increase, shutting the parasites out of red blood cells could even mean that transmission would decline – as mosquitos would no longer spread the infection through the blood of infected individuals.

"Quite simply, if you prevent the parasite from invading red blood cells, you prevent any disease," said Manuel Llinás, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State University and lead author of the paper. "We want to understand how this invasion process is regulated at the genetic level. One of the unique features about Plasmodium is that it has very few transcription factors—proteins that bind to specific DNA sequences to direct which genes should be turned on and when. Most multi-celled organisms have hundreds of these regulators, but it turns out, so far as we can recognise, the parasite has a single family of transcription factors called Apicomplexan AP2 proteins. One of these transcription factors is PfAP2-I."

The malarial parasites go through three distinct phases once the infection enters the human body: it first incubates in the liver where it multiplies, before moving through the rest of the body by invading red blood cells and then releasing merozoites, daughter parasites, which continue to infect the body. A drug or action that interrupted this second phase could be hugely beneficial in combatting the spread of malaria.

There were an estimated 438,000 deaths from malaria in 2015 and 212 million cases of the infection globally. The figures have exhibited a steady drop over the last decade but anti-malarial drug resistance could soon cause serious problems, with a potential resurgence in the infection.

Ben Hargreaves

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