Researchers from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia have made a new discovery about malaria parasite invasion into human cells, which is expected to aid in the development of a vaccine and new therapies for the infection.
The team used cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to map the first contact between Plasmodium vivax parasites and young red blood cells that are invaded to initiate their spread throughout the body.
While the researchers found earlier this year that the parasites leverage the human transferrin receptor to access the blood cells, they were able to map the atomic level of the interaction in the new study.
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute associate professor Wai-Hong Tham said: “We’ve now mapped, down to the atomic level, exactly how the parasite interacts with the human transferrin receptor.
“This is critical for taking our original finding to the next stage – developing potential new anti-malarial drugs and vaccines. Cryo-EM is really opening doors for researchers to visualise structures that were previously too large and complex to ‘solve’ before.”
Tham noted that the ability to map precise details of the parasite’s interaction with the host allows identification of its vulnerable spots.
The researchers expect the newly discovered molecular machinery to be a good target for an anti-malarial vaccine that can be effective against a wide range of P. vivax parasites.
Co-researcher Jakub Gruszczyk said: “With this crystal map, we have identified additional ‘weak spots’ that could be exploited as therapeutic targets. The information allows us to go back to the parasite and pull out the part of the protein that will make the best possible vaccine.”
The research was supported by the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust among others.