Skip to Content Skip to Navigation
26th April 2024 Latest News Viruses

Malaria discovery could lead to targeted treatments

Danny Wilson resized

Two proteins that malaria parasites need to infect human red blood cells could be the target of new drugs after it was discovered nullifying their functions stopped the parasites from multiplying. 

The discoveries have been led by The Hospital Research Foundation Group’s Mid-Career Fellow Dr Danny Wilson and his team at the Adelaide University. 

In collaboration with colleagues at the Bernhardt Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Germany and Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, the Wilson laboratory has been working on identifying the important proteins for the parasites to infect host-cells. 

In journal articles published in Nature Communications in 2020 and Communications Biology in 2022, Dr Wilson and his team found that two related proteins called PfCERLI1 and PfCERLI2, were essential in helping malaria parasites infect red blood cells. 

Malaria is transmitted to humans through mosquitos infected with a parasite and is a threat to almost half of the world’s population. 

When a person is bitten by an infected mosquito, an asymptomatic infection is established in the liver until tiny versions of the parasite migrate into the bloodstream where the PfCERLI1 and 2 proteins help them infect and replicate within human red blood cells, triggering the symptoms of malaria. 

However, Dr Wilson and his team were able to suppress the production of these proteins in a lab setting, preventing the parasites from invading the blood cells. 

He said that understanding how to block PfCERLI1 and 2s function could help development of drugs that prevent replication of disease-causing stages of malaria.  

“With resistance to our best antimalarial drugs spreading in malaria endemic areas, development of new drug treatment and vaccination strategies are important for saving the lives of those at risk of infection, particularly children and pregnant women,” Dr Wilson said. 

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual malaria report released last year, the number of estimated cases globally rose to almost 250 million in 2022, resulting in the deaths of more than 600,000 people. 

About 94% of those deaths were in Africa, and predominately children aged 5 and under. 

While some measures have helped reduce the spread, resistance to insecticides and antimalarial drugs have reduced their effectiveness.  

The WHO says that new and innovative tools that are efficient, effective, and affordable are urgently required to fight the growing incidence of malaria. 

Dr Wilson has previously collaborated with researchers at Melbourne’s RMIT University to identify human-cell proteins that malaria parasites rely on to survive when they multiply inside human cells. 

Some of these proteins are also targeted by anti-cancer medication, so they could be repurposed to kill infecting parasites. 

Dr Wilson said this method could provide a “near-term, low-cost” option for treatment of people infected with malaria.