Researchers in the UK have found a key weakness in the way the most deadly species of the malaria parasite enters human blood cells, offering new hope for vaccine development.

Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge found that the Plasmodium falciparum parasite relies on a single receptor on the red blood cell’s surface to invade.

Senior co-author from the trust Gavin Wright said: "Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process.

"Our research seems to have revealed an Achilles’ heel in the way the parasite invades our red blood cells. It is rewarding to see how our techniques can be used to answer important biological problems and lay the foundations for new therapies," Wright added.

There is currently no approved vaccine against malaria. Although several red blood cell receptors had been previously identified, none was shown to be essential for a parasite to invade.

Dr Julian Rayner of the Sanger institute said: "By identifying a single receptor that appears to be essential for parasites to invade human red blood cells, we have also identified an obvious and very exciting focus for vaccine development.

"The hope is that this work will lead towards an effective vaccine based around the parasite protein," he added.

Malaria kills approximately one million people every year, mostly children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa.