A new and effective vaccine against malaria could be created after researchers identified how to slow down the spread of the disease.
Researchers at the University of Oxford have identified the specific antibodies produced within the immune system which help prevent the infection from spreading.
Malaria starts with an infectious mosquito bite before the parasites spread to the human liver and into the blood, where they multiply 10-fold every 48 hours inside the red blood cells, leading to illness and death.
The infection is caused when a protein called RH5, which is found in the malaria parasite, binds to human protein.
But Dr Daniel Alanine, co-author of the study published in scientific journal Cell on Thursday, said RH5 was “a weak point in the blood-borne form of malaria”.
“The work just published has given us the first insight into the most effective ways for our immune system to attack RH5 in humans,” he said.
“An exciting and surprising finding to come out of this work is that a very specific type of antibody slows the invasion of malaria into red blood cells, giving the immune system more time to kill the malaria parasite.
“This finding will allow us to design new vaccines which leverage this slowing effect for the first time by teaching the immune system to make this special type of antibody.”
Study co-author Matthew Higgins, professor of molecular parasitology at the University of Oxford’s department of biochemistry, said: “This is an exciting finding because it shows that antibodies which do not prevent the parasite from getting into red blood cells might still be useful, by making the protective antibodies more potent.”
Simon Draper, professor of vaccinology and translational medicine at the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the university, added: “We know the key to stopping malaria is a strong immune response, and so every antibody counts.
“What we must do next is use these findings to develop an improved RH5 vaccine that induces more of the effective antibodies and less of the non-effective ones – this will ultimately make a better vaccine, and hopefully lead to an effective means of preventing malaria.”
Malaria kills approximately 430,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organisation.