New drug hope in malaria fight

An Achilles' heel in the malaria parasite has been identified that could be targeted to stop the organism spreading and multiplying.

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Scientists have managed to block the activity of a malaria enzyme called NMT

An Achilles' heel in the malaria parasite has been identified that could be targeted to stop the organism spreading and multiplying.

The early research may lead to new effective drug treatments for malaria, which kills more than a million people a year.

Working with mice, scientists blocked the activity of a malaria enzyme called NMT. Treating infected animals prevented them showing symptoms and extended their lives.

NMT is involved in a wide range of essential processes in the parasite, including the production of proteins that enable malaria to spread and thrive in humans.

Researchers have tested a handful of molecules that block NMT in malaria parasites living in human red blood cells and in mice. But further work must be carried out before a treatment is considered safe enough to be tested in human patients.

Dr Ed Tate, from Imperial College London, who led the study published in the journal Nature Chemistry, said: "The drug situation for malaria is becoming very serious. Resistance is emerging fast and it's going to be a huge problem in the future.

"Finding an enzyme that can be targeted effectively in malaria can be a big challenge. Here, we've shown not only why NMT is essential for a wide range of important processes in the parasite, but also that we can design molecules that stop it from working during infection.

"It has so many functions that we think blocking it could be effective at preventing long-term disease and transmission, in addition to treating acute malaria. We expect it to work not just on Plasmodium falciparum, the most common malaria parasite, but the other species as well.

"We need to do some more work in the lab to find the best candidate molecule to take into clinical trials, but hopefully we'll be ready to do that within a few years."