The surprise discovery is made that malaria parasites can ‘talk’ to each other – a social behaviour that ensures the parasite’s survival and improves its chances of being transmitted to other humans.
The finding opens the door for developing antimalarial drugs and vaccines that shut-off these communication networks.
Professor Alan Cowman, Dr Neta Regev-Rudzki and Dr Danny Wilson show that malaria parasites are able to send out messages to communicate with other malaria parasites in the body. Their study is published in the journal Cell.
Cowman says the researchers are shocked to discover that malaria parasites work in unison to enhance ‘activation’ into sexually mature forms that can be picked up by mosquitoes, which are the carriers of malaria.
“When Neta showed me the data, I was absolutely amazed, I couldn’t believe it. We repeated the experiments many times in many different ways before I really started to believe that these parasites were signalling to each other and communicating. But we came to appreciate why the malaria parasite really needs this mechanism – it needs to know how many other parasites are in the human to sense when is the right time to activate into sexual forms that give it the best chance of being transmitted back to the mosquito.”
Cowman says he hopes the discovery will pave the way to new antimalarial drugs or vaccines for preventing malaria. “This discovery has fundamentally changed our view of the malaria parasite and is a big step in understanding how the malaria parasite survives and is transmitted,” he says. “The next step is to identify the molecules involved in this signalling process, and ways that we could block these communication networks to block the transmission of malaria from the human to the mosquito.