Now researchers have discovered new ways in which the malarial parasite survives in the bloodstream of its victims.
The advance is the result of a collaboration between medical scientists at the University of Leicester in the UK and a team from the French Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (Inserm) working at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology in Glasgow and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland), now relocating to Monash University in Melbourne (Australia).
The breakthrough was made by the teams led by Professor Andrew Tobin at the University of Leicester and Professor Christian Doerig, now at Monash University, and is published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications and was funded by The Wellcome Trust, the European Commission, Inserm and EPFL.
Professor Tobin, of the Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology, said: "I am proud to be involved in a collaboration that has made such an impact on malaria research. Our study opens new avenues for researchers to look for new drugs that treat malaria."
Professor Doerig explained "We have shown that a crucial element that is required by malaria parasites to survive in the human blood stream is a group of enzymes called protein kinases. If we stop these proteins kinases from working then we kill the malaria parasites. We are now looking for drugs that do exactly that - stop the protein kinases from working. If we find these drugs then we will have a new way of killing the malaria parasite."
Professor Tobin added: "It seems perfectly realistic to us that we can now develop novel anti-malaria drugs based on the findings that we have made - it certainly is a big moment in our fight against this terrible disease that mainly affects the world's poorest people."
Tobin and Doerig also warn: "The parasite is very clever at adapting to drug treatments and in so doing becoming resistant to drugs. In fact, there is already evidence that the parasite is developing resistance to the most recent front line treatment for malaria.
"To avoid the catastrophic affects of widespread resistance to anti-malarial treatments we need a continued pipeline of new anti-malaria drugs. Our discovery provides one avenue towards populating such a pipeline."
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.