Australian researchers have discovered how the malaria parasite is able to invade human cells, which could lead to a new range of anti-malarial drugs.
The team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne believe their breakthrough helps unlock the mystery of how the parasite survives inside humans.
According to the World Health Organisation, malaria infects more than 230 million people and results in the death of close to million people every year - mostly in tropical parts of the world.
Professor Alan Cowman, who led the research, which appears today in the journal Nature, is excited about the discovery.
"I think this is an important discovery and one that we believe will end up with new anti-malarial drugs," he says.
Cowman says malaria survives inside humans by sending out hundreds of so-called effector proteins into the red blood cells it is invading.
"It's a bit like buying an old house that's about to fall down and then sending hundreds of carpenters to renovate it and fix it up so that you can live in there and survive and hide," he says.
"The puzzle has been how does the parasite know which proteins to send out there or which carpenters to send out there to the red blood cell and which to keep inside."
The answer is another protein called plasmepsin V.
"So it's a bit like an usher in a theatre where there's lots of proteins or people rushing past and only those with a particular ticket that has the right barcode are allowed into the theatre, so that they can renovate the red blood cell in the way that the parasite requires," he says.
Cowman believes plasmepsin V is the Achilles heel of malaria. He is hoping it will lead to the development of a new type of anti-malarial drug that targets the protein.
"It's clear now that there's one protein that decides that all of these proteins are to be exported, so if you inhibit this particular protein, you inhibit the export of all of those hundreds of proteins that are absolutely required," he says.
"So it's essentially a weak link that allows you to start to target this protein to block all of these effective proteins."
Cowman says if you can affect this particular protein, malaria will get into the host cell but it will die.
"It won't be able to renovate the red blood cell because that renovation process is absolutely essential and critical for the parasite," he says.
"So it'll get in but then it dies because it can't make the changes that it needs."
Cowman believes there will be a time when this disease is eradicated.
"I think it's a long way down the track [but] with the political will to eradicate Malaria, I think it will be possible," he says. "But I think it will take a long time."
In another study appearing today in Nature, researchers have identified some of the tools that mosquitoes use to hunt down their blood meal.
The US researchers identified 50 different genes that the mosquito Anopheles gambiae uses to sniff out humans.
They say the results could be used to improve mosquito repellents - a field dominated by just a few compounds such as DEET.