Lifestyle & Belief

Malaria breakthrough could lead to new vaccine


A Congolese woman and her malarial child speak with a doctor at the Makpandu refugee camp outside Yambio, south Sudan, on Jan. 14, 2011.


Spencer Platt

Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding how malaria parasites enter red blood cells, a discovery that could hasten the development of a vaccine effective enough to wipe out the disease, CBS News reported.

The researchers published their findings in the Nov. 9 issue of Nature.

The scientists, who work for the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK, identified a red blood cell receptor that acts like a gateway into the cell, CBS News reported. When they blocked the malaria protein from interacting with this receptor, the disease could not get in.

"By identifying a single receptor that appears to be essential for parasites to invade human red blood cells, we have also identified an obvious and very exciting focus for vaccine development," study co-author Dr. Julian Rayner said in statement, according to CBS News.

"Our research seems to have revealed an Achilles heel in the way the parasite invades our red blood cells," study co-author Gavin Wright told reporters at a press briefing in London, according to Reuters. "Our findings were unexpected and completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process. The great hope is that this breakthrough will facilitate the path toward a more effective vaccine.”

British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has had some success with an experimental vaccine called RTS,S, which prevented 50 percent of children in a recent clinical trial from getting malaria.

More from GlobalPost: New malaria vaccine halves risk of infection

The RTS,S vaccine is likely to become the first licensed malaria vaccine in the world, Reuters reported, but experts stress that wiping out malaria requires a more effective vaccine.

According to the Guardian:

Malaria affects more than 300 million people every year and is responsible for around a million deaths, the majority of them children in sub-Saharan Africa under the age of five. The disease is caused by the Plasmodium parasite, which is spread by mosquitoes, with most deaths resulting from infection with Plasmodium falciparum.