The malaria parasite works on the dendritic cells (DCs), warding off the body's immune attack, say Australian researchers.
The dendritic cells are found in most tissues of the body and are particularly abundant in those that are interfaces between the external and internal environments (e.g., skin, lungs, and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract).
Dr Michelle Wykes and her team from Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) have recently published new findings demonstrating how the malaria parasite can survive in the dendritic cells in the spleen.
Traditionally, it was believed the parasite's development in the body was restricted to the liver and red blood cells. But finding its incubation in the dendritic cells could pave the way for new malaria drugs and vaccines.
Dr Wykes' research, undertaken over several years, provides a major breakthrough in our understanding of the malaria parasites.
"Our research has discovered how white blood cells called dendritic cells, malfunction and shield the malaria parasite from the body's immune attack.
"Dendritic cells normally function like generals of an army, giving orders to the body's immune cells to fight infection," Dr Wykes said.
"The system usually works brilliantly. However, the problem with malaria is that the disease has found a way to block dendritic cells from doing their work, meaning that the disease over-rides our immune responses. And therefore, people get sick."
Dr Wykes was awarded a $300,000 Queensland Government Smart State fellowship in 2010 to assist her research.
"The fellowship has enabled me to progress my research and without it I wouldn't have been able to deliver these new findings which are a major step in fighting the global problem of malaria," Dr Wykes said.
The findings were published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Malaria affects more than 200 million people worldwide, causing nearly 800,000 deaths per year, mostly young children under five.
The World Health Organisation states most deaths occur in Africa where a child dies of malaria every 45 seconds and the disease accounts for approximately 20 percent of all childhood deaths.
Australia is not immune with approximately 600 cases reported here annually, mostly people who have been travelling overseas in malaria-affected countries, with Queenslanders accounting for approximately one-third of these cases.