Using a technique devised at the Cromwell Trust Sanger Institute, researchers found that the malaria parasite uses a unique receptor to gain entry and infect human red blood cells. They hope their discovery, which they describe in a study published online in Nature this week, opens a promising new route to the successful development of an anti-malaria vaccine.
Senior co-author Dr Gavin Wright, from the UK's Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, told the press they may have found the malaria parasite's "Achilles' heel" in how it invades red blood cells:
"Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process."
Malaria is a disease transmitted by bites from mosquitoes carrying Plasmodium parasites. The disease kills around a million people every year, mostly very young children in sub-Saharan Africa.