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Researchers have today revealed a key discovery in understanding how the most deadly species of malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, invades human red blood cells. Using a technique developed at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, they have found that the parasite relies on a single receptor on the red blood cell’s surface to invade, offering an exciting new focus for vaccine development.

Malaria kills approximately one million people every year, mostly children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently no licensed vaccine is available.

The blood stage of Plasmodium’s lifecycle begins when the parasite invades human red blood cells, and it is this stage that is responsible for the symptoms and mortality associated with malaria. Researchers have tried for many years to develop a vaccine to prevent the parasite gaining entry into our red blood cells, but so far they have been unsuccessful. One of the challenges is that the parasite is adaptable – although several red blood cell receptors had been previously identified, none were shown to be essential: when entry through one receptor is prevented, the parasite is able to switch to another. This new research has found a single receptor that is absolutely required by the parasite to invade.

Primary source: Nature

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