Scientists discover malaria’s ‘Achilles heel’

700_a29c222dc5b93356a5372920962bdec0A team of Australian scientists in Canberra are celebrating a discovery that could potentially save more than 1 million lives every year.

Dr Natalie Spillman and Professor Kiaran Kirk from the Australian National University had for years been studying how the parasite that causes malaria works.

Recently they noticed a tiny pump the parasite uses to expel salt from its body.

“We’ve been interested for a long time in how the parasite controls its salt content,” Professor Kirk said.

“And it was [what we discovered] then that really surprised us.”

Dr Spillman says researchers at drug companies in Singapore and the United States were also busy with discoveries.

“It was within a week or two of our identification of the pump that a paper came out reporting the discovery [of a new drug],” she said.

But Professor Kirk says it was not until the two discoveries were combined, that a breakthrough was made.

“We then took their drug, put it together with our salt pump and showed that sure enough their drug blocked our salt pump,” Professor Kirk said.

By blocking the pump, the parasite could no longer get rid of any salt and so would eventually kill itself from an overload.

“Like water in a boat,” Professor Kirk said.

“If you’ve got a leaky boat that’s leaking lots of water you need a pump to push the water out of the boat.

“If you stop that pump working, the boat fills with water and the boat sinks.

“If you stop the salt pump working, the parasite fills with salt and the parasite sinks.”

Malaria is spread to humans by infected mosquitoes.

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