Australian researchers have for the first time identified proteins that allows malaria parasites to “walk through” cell walls.
The team from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) were the first in the world to discover the 'superpower' of malaria to walk through cell walls by using an insectary to grow malaria parasites.
They have now identified the two proteins that are key to the parasite's unique ability, providing hope that they could be targeted to develop antimalarial drugs or even a vaccine.
Justin Boddey, the lead researcher of the project, explained that when a person is infected by malaria the parasite multiplies in the liver then bursts out and infects the blood.
He said that the research had confirmed that the deadly parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, had the ability to 'walk through cell walls' when seeking liver cells where it could hide and multiply.
“The malaria infection cycle begins with a mosquito bite, when parasites are injected into the skin, and then rapidly move to the liver,” Boddey said in a media release on Wednesday.
“We have shown that P. falciparum employs a technique called cell traversal to quickly move through host cells in their path as they seek out liver cells to infect.
”Our study identified that P. falciparum parasites traverse human cells effectively walking through cell walls using two proteins called SPECT and PLP1 to achieve this superpower. This allows parasites to get from the skin to the liver very quickly following a mosquito bite.“
Malaria is responsible for 650,000 deaths globally every year, predominantly children and pregnant women, making it one of the most deadly diseases in the world.
Boddey said pinpointing the proteins was the best avenue for developing new therapies.
”Our long-term goal is to eradicate malaria, so we have to look at ways of breaking the cycle of infection,“ he said.
”A vaccine or treatment that halts the liver-stage infection offers the best chance of eradication because it stops parasites before they take hold."