A vital mechanism that allows red blood cells infected by malaria to stick to the walls of blood vessels and avoid being destroyed by the body's immune system has been identified by Australian researchers.
The discovery highlights an important potential new target for anti-malarial drugs.
Malaria is caused by the malaria parasite, which is injected into the bloodstream from the salivary glands of infected mosquitoes.
There are a number of different species of parasite, but the deadliest is the Plasmodium falciparum parasite.
The malaria parasite infects healthy red blood cells, where it reproduces, producing up to thirty-two new daughter parasites.
The parasite secretes a 'glue', known as PfEMP1, which travels to the surface of the infected red blood cells, leading to the formation of the knobs on the surface of the cells.
The cells become sticky and adhere to the walls of the blood vessels.
This prevents the cells being flushed through the spleen, where the parasites would be destroyed by the body's immune system, but also restricts blood supply to vital organs.
Now, researchers, led by Professor Alan Cowman from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, have identified eight new proteins that transport the P. falciparum parasite's 'glue' to the surface of the infected red blood cells.
They have shown that removing just one of these proteins prevents the infected red blood cells from sticking to the walls of the blood vessels.
"These findings greatly enhance our understanding of how the malaria parasite commandeers the red blood cell for its own survival and avoids our immune defences," Cowman said.
"They also suggest that a drug that targets the 'stickiness' proteins could be an effective treatment for malaria," he added.
The study is published in the journal Cell.