London: Scientists have identified a key protein common to malaria parasites, opening the way to more effective vaccines or drugs against the life-threatening infections caused by the micro-organisms.
The protein has sticky properties that enable it to bind to red blood cells among humans and other animals and form dangerous clumps that can block blood vessels. These clumps can cause severe illness, including coma and brain damage.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh worked with researchers from Cameroon, Mali, Kenya and the Gambia to test their antibodies against the parasites collected from patients, the journal Public Library of Science Pathogens, reports.
Alexandra Rowe, professor at the Edinburgh School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: "We knew that clusters, or rosettes, of blood cells were found in many cases of severe or life-threatening malaria, so we looked at rosette-forming parasites and found a common factor that we could target with antibodies."
"We hope this discovery will inform new treatments or vaccines to block the formation of rosettes and prevent many life-threatening cases of malaria," added Rowe, according to an Edinburgh statement.
Presently, between 10 and 20 percent of people with severe malaria die from it, and the disease - which is spread through mosquito bites - kills one million people every year, most of them being children. The parasites, once in the bloodstream, are able to alter the protein molecules on their surfaces to evade attack by the immune system.
These surface proteins are usually poor targets for treatments or vaccines because they are highly variable between different malaria parasite strains.