Scientists at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg have identified an enzyme which is key to the mechanism whereby the malaria parasite Plasmodium infects red blood cells, and gobbles up the haemoglobin proteins that transport oxygen in the blood.
Dewal Jani and his colleagues say that the "haem" portion of haemoglobin is toxic, and the Plasmodium parasite turns it into a non-toxic crystal called haemozoin so as to avoid destruction.
The researchers say that their study has shown that the Heme Detoxification Protein (HDP) enables the parasite to convert haem into haemozoin, reports New Scientist magazine.
They say that they have also identified several chemicals that may inhibit HDP, which is conserved across all Plasmodium species they have tested so far.
The research team points out that several existing malaria drugs by stopping haem's transformation.
According to the researchers, their study may help scientists gain a better understanding of the process, and thereby lead to the development of new and improved drugs for malaria.
A paper describing the research has been published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.