A new treatment for malaria is on the anvil - a blood-thinning drug heparin that can stop the parasite from infecting red blood cells.
The most common form of malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum which burrows into red blood cells where it rapidly multiplies, leading to massive numbers of parasites in the blood stream that can cause severe disease and death.
Dr James Beeson, Ms Michelle Boyle and Dr Jack Richards from the institute's Infection and Immunity division, along with colleagues at the Burnet Institute and Imperial College London, have identified a new approach that could stop the parasite infecting red blood cells in the first place.
"The malaria parasite needs a protein called MSP1 if it is to infect red blood cells as MSP1 is involved in the initial attachment of the parasite to the cells," Dr Beeson said.
"We have shown that heparin-like carbohydrates bind to MSP1 which stops the parasite from properly attaching to the red blood cell and, therefore, from invading."
Although humans produce heparin-like molecules naturally, they do not occur at high enough levels in the blood to have anti-malarial activity, Dr Beeson said.
"Heparin itself wouldn't be suitable as an anti-malarial as it prevents blood clotting. However, we have identified related compounds that are more potent against malaria than heparin but do not prevent blood clotting- these could form the basis of new antimalarial drugs."
The findings are published today in the international journal Blood.