An investigation into the mysterious inner workings of the malaria parasite has revealed that it survives and proliferates in the human bloodstream thanks in part to a single, crucial chemical that the parasite produces internally.
According to scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Stanford Medical School, reporting today in the journal PLoS Biology, this insight immediately provides a powerful new tool for discovering and designing drugs to treat malaria, which infects hundreds of millions of people around the world each year and claims about a million lives mostly children.
The work also gives researchers a hypothetical new vaccine to test: a weakened version of the parasite, which the scientists grew in the test tube by supplying it with the chemical it needed to live while at the same time treating it with drugs to eliminate its ability to produce that chemical on its own.
"It's as if we designed a ticking time bomb inside the parasite that's ready to go off and when it does, the parasite dies," said Joseph DeRisi, PhD, a Howard Hughes Investigator at UCSF and vice-chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, who led the work.
In theory, health officials could inoculate people living in areas where malaria is common with a similar "attenuated" form of the parasite. If it works, the modified parasite would not make those people sick but would give them resistance to the pathogen if they were later exposed to it although that approach would need to be tested in clinical trials to determine whether it would work.
"It is an intriguing possibility that must be explored," said Ellen Yeh, MD, PhD, the co-author of the study. Yeh is a postdoctoral researcher at UCSF and also on the faculty of the Pathology Department at Stanford University.
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|Contact: Jason Socrates Bardi|
University of California - San Francisco