Researchers from the Centre for Medicinal Parasitology (CMP) at the University of Copenhagen have uncovered one of the secrets of the malaria parasite, which infects hundreds of millions of people every year.
Scientists hope the ground-breaking discovery, which has been published in the journal Nature, could lead to the development of a vaccine against the lethal illness.
One of the reasons why the mosquito-borne disease is so deadly is because the victim’s body has a difficult time getting rid of the parasite once it clasps itself to the inside of blood vessels using protein 'hooks'.
“Last year we identified the strongest malaria parasite protein hooks and now we have found the receptor in the blood vessel where the protein-hooks clasp on,” Thomas Lavstsen, a CMP lecturer told science news site Videnskab.dk. “That means we now have both sides of the story and can start working towards making a vaccine that will prevent the malaria parasite from attaching itself and inducing malaria.”
The receptors the parasites use to hook onto the blood vessels vary in binding strength and it is the parasites with the strongest binding ability that cause the most serious cases of malaria, including cerebral malaria, one of the leading causes of mortality among children in Africa.
To find out which surface proteins in the blood vessel walls that the malaria proteins bind to, CMP contacted a British firm specialising in making cells produce proteins on the surface of cell membranes.
With their help, the scientists could test which of the blood-vessel wall’s thousands of proteins that a pure version of the malaria parasite’s strongest protein hook attached to. The results showed there was only one protein they hooked on to.
“When we tested other strong protein hooks, they all attached to the EPCR surface protein, so we have found the place in blood vessels where all the most deadly malaria parasites attached themselves,” Lousie Turner, from CMP, told Videnskab.dk.
The EPCR (endothelial protein C receptor) is an important receptor in the body because it is involved in blood coagulation, the body’s immune response and the integrity of the cell wall.
Lavstsen believes the discovery can make it easier to understand how the malaria illness develops and why it can be so lethal.
“We have not proved it in our research, but it is all so clear now. Many of the classical symptoms of malaria are connected to the function of EPCR. That’s where the perspectives for comprehending malaria and creating a vaccine against it stem from,” Lavstsen told Videnskab.dk.
While the researchers expect a vaccine against malaria could take up to 10 years to produce, experts are already voicing their hope for the discovery.
“It is ground-breaking research that opens up for new research geared towards generating a vaccine against malaria. The research presents us a mechanism in the malaria parasite that has not been described before and which can enlighten us on the subject,” Eskild Petersen, a doctor specialising in infectious diseases at Skejby Sygehus, told Videnskab.dk.
According to World Health Organisation estimates, last year there were 219 million documented cases of malaria worldwide. Between 660,000 and 1.2 million people died from the disease.