(CBS) Has malaria met its match?
Scientists say they've uncovered the diseases' "Achilles' heel" - a way to block the malaria parasite from invading blood cells. They hope their discovery can lead to a vaccine that will wipe out the disease.
"It offers a tantalizing target for the development of entirely new classes of drugs and vaccines," Dr Colin Sutherland of the department of immunology and infection at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Guardian.
The malaria parasite - called Plasmodium falciparum- invades human red blood cells, causing symptoms including fever, chills, flu-like symptoms, and anemia. Researchers have tried in vain to develop a vaccine that prevents the malaria protein from entering the blood cell through receptor channels.
With the help of a new laboratory technique designed at the Institute to track how malaria proteins and cell-receptors interact, scientists found one specific red blood cell receptor that is "absolutely required" by a malaria parasite to invade. Essentially, they discovered malaria's gateway into the blood cell.
"Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process," study author Dr. Gavin Wright, senior co-author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the U.K., said in a written statement.
When the scientists disrupted the interaction between malaria protein and receptor, the disease never made its way into the red blood cell.
"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," co-author Dr. Julian Rayner of the Sanger Institute, said in the statement.
Their work is published in the Nov. 9 issue of Nature.
Rayner called the discovery a huge advance - even if it risks his own employment as a malaria researcher.
"We're really actively trying to put ourselves out of a job with this," Rayner told The Guardian. "We're hoping to do our first trials for safety in humans within about two years if things go well."
According to the most recent World Malaria Report, there were 225 million cases of the disease in 2009, which resulted in 781,000 deaths. Most of the deaths occur in children - in Africa a child dies from malaria every 45 seconds.
The World Health Organization has more on malaria.