Malaria Discovery Could Result in New Treatments


Scientists and health professionals have been fighting a seemingly endless battle with malaria for decades, but a recent discovery could finally lead to new treatments for the deadly disease. An international team has learned how the malaria parasites reproduce, which has opened the door for a way to prevent such reproduction from occurring.

The researchers who made the discovery were led in their quest by John Dalton, a biochemist in McGill’s Institute of Parasitology. Given that more than 2 million people die of malaria each year and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease affects 350 to 500 million people per year, the urgency of finding an effective treatment is apparent.

The vast majority of malaria cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Forty-one percent of the world’s population live in regions where malaria is transmitted, which include parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, Hispaniola, and Oceania. Although malaria was eradicated in the United States in the early 1950s, cases still occur, with 1,337 reported in 2002, including 8 deaths.


Malaria is caused by single-celled parasites from the genus Plasmodium. Although there are more than 100 different species of Plasmodium, only four commonly infect humans. Each species produces a somewhat different pattern of symptoms, and two or more species can infect a single person at the same time, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Generally, symptoms occur in three stages and include chills followed by fever, and then sweating. Other symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The parasites live inside red blood cells where they consume proteins so they can grow and reproduce. Once the parasites reach a certain size, they divide and break out of the red blood cells and invade more cells, where they repeat the process. Eventually the parasites can destroy so many red blood cells that the infected individual can die.

Dalton and his team discovered that the parasites rely on certain digestive enzymes to help them with their growth and reproductive process. In addition, the investigators identified the three-dimensional formation of two enzymes and showed how drugs can be designed to block the activities of the enzymes and thus turn off the disease process.

Many eyes are turned to this new malaria discovery and the potential for new treatments for the deadly disease. The multinational team, which besides McGill also included Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Monash University and the University of Western Sydney, Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland, and the University of Virginia, has already initiated the development of anti-malarial drug treatment based on the results of their discovery.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
McGill University news release, Jan. 28, 2010
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases