London: Scientists have identified a key protein in the human body that, if targeted, can stop the malaria parasite in its tracks.
Once inside the body, parasites use a complex process to enter red blood cells and survive within them.
By identifying one of the key proteins needed for the parasite to survive in the red blood cells, the team has prevented the protein from working, thus killing the parasite.
The discovery could be the first step in developing a new drug to treat malaria, said the study that appeared in the journal Nature Communications.
"This is a real breakthrough in our understanding of how malaria survives in the blood stream and invades red blood cells," said professor Andrew Tobin from the University of Leicester.
"We have revealed a process that allows this to happen and if it can be targeted by drugs we could see something that stops malaria without causing toxic side-effects."
The researchers from the University of Leicester and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that one protein called kinase plays a central role in various pathways that allow the parasite to survive in the blood.
Understanding the pathways the parasite uses means that future drugs could be precisely designed to kill the parasite but with limited toxicity, making them safe enough to be used by children and pregnant women.
"It is a great advantage in drug discovery research if you know the identity of the molecular target of a particular drug and the consequences of blocking its function," added professor David Baker from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), malaria currently infects more than 200 million people worldwide and accounts for more than 500,000 deaths per year.