'Key’ to deadly malaria infection revealed

'Key’ to deadly malaria infection revealed

Illuminate newsletter index page, March 2019
March 2019

Professor Alan Cowman and Dr Wilson Wong
(L-R) Dr Wilson Wong and Professor Alan Cowman have
visualised the ‘key’ used by the world’s deadliest malaria
parasite to infect blood cells.

Institute researchers have discovered how the world’s deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is able to spread infection in the blood.

Plasmodium falciparum is responsible for more than 500,000 deaths each year. A vaccine for protection against this parasite does not yet exist.

'Key’ to disease

In an exciting breakthrough, Institute malaria experts Professor Alan Cowman and Dr Wilson Wong visualised the cluster of proteins, or ‘key’, used by Plasmodium falciparum to enter red blood cells.

Dr Wong said this was a significant moment because being able to prevent the parasite from entering red blood cells could block its ability to cause infection.

“By entering these cells, the parasite enjoys rapid growth, multiplication and spread, driving symptoms such as fever, chills, diarrhoea and vomiting for its host.

“The information we have gained from this study could enable us to design a vaccine that blocks the parasite’s ability to infect the blood.”

Seeing is believing

In collaboration with colleagues at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus (US) the teams used one of the world’s most advanced microscopes, the Titan Krios, to obtain hundreds of thousands of images of the protein cluster – consisting of three proteins called Rh5, CyRPA and Ripr – from different angles.

Then, with the help of high-powered computing, they were able to stitch together the images into a complete 3D picture of the Rh5/CyRPA/Ripr key.

Infection ‘lock out’

Professor Cowman said the researchers finally had the information needed to arm the immune system with precise instructions for how to ‘lock out’ the deadly malaria parasite.

“This discovery is a ‘eureka moment’ for malaria research."

"We are an important step closer to one day achieving the ultimate goal of eradicating malaria,” he said.

The study was published in the high impact journal Nature. The research was a collaboration between the Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus and the company ExpreS2ion Biotechnologies in Denmark.

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