An Indian scientist, who suffered from malaria as a child, is among a group of top international scientists which has identified a key protein that if targeted stops the disease, paving the way for new treatments.
Dr Mahmood Alam, from Lohardaga in Jharkhand, is among the authors of the new study published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’ today.
Alam and others at the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Toxicology Unit based at the University of Leicester and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine identified a key protein, called a protein kinase, that if targeted stops malaria.
“There has been a great deal of excitement among malaria scientists about the outcome of our research since it not only tells us about the biochemical pathways that are essential for the parasite to survive in our bodies but it also allows us to design drugs that can spot these essential pathways and thereby kill the parasite,” said Alam.
“As a kid I had malaria few times and I always wanted to study the malaria parasite so that effective drugs or vaccines could be developed,” said the scientist, who graduated in biotechnology in Ranchi and moved to Pondicherry for his Master’s in the subject from Pondicherry University.
“To study the survival mechanisms of P falciparum, I joined the research group of Prof Andrew Tobin at University of Leicester and then at Medical Research Council, Toxicology Unit. Here I have used the cutting edge technology of phosphoproteomics to further study the biochemical pathways in malaria parasite,” he added.
Malaria is caused by a parasite that lives inside an infected mosquito and is transferred into the human through a bite. Once inside the body, parasites use a complex process to enter red blood cells and survive within them. By identifying one of the key proteins needed for the parasite to survive in the red blood cells, the team have prevented the protein from working, thus killing the parasite. The discovery could be the first step in developing a new drug to treat malaria.
The scientists – funded by the UK’s MRC and the Wellcome Trust – used state-of–the-art methods to dissect the biochemical pathways involved in keeping the malaria parasite alive. This included an approach called chemical genetics where synthetic chemicals are used in combination with introducing genetic changes to the DNA of the parasite.
They found that one protein kinase (PfPKG) plays a central role in various pathways that allow the parasite to survive in the blood. Understanding the pathways the parasite uses means that future drugs could be precisely designed to kill the parasite but with limited toxicity, making them safe enough to be used by children and pregnant women.
Co-lead author of the study Professor Tobin said: “This is a real breakthrough in our understanding of how malaria survives in the blood stream and invades red blood cells. We’ve revealed a process that allows this to happen and if it can be targeted by drugs we could see something that stops malaria in its tracks without causing toxic side-effects.”
According to the World Health Organisation, malaria currently infects more than 200 million people worldwide and accounts for more than 500,000 deaths per year.