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Scientists have identified the structure of a protein that malaria parasites use to invade human red blood cells.

This could help efforts to develop drugs or vaccines against the disease, they say.

The team, led by Leemor Joshua-Tor at US-based Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, will have their results published online by the journal Cell tomorrow (29 July).

The researchers found that two 'arms' of a protein called EBA-175 on the outer surface of the parasite join together in "a molecular handshake".

The two molecular 'arms' (central
green and purple structure) binding
the malaria protein (blue) to the
human blood cell protein (red)
(Photo credit: Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory/ L. Joshua-Tor)

This structure grabs hold of a protein on the surface of human red blood cells, allowing the parasite to invade them.

Parasites that don't manage to enter blood cells soon die, so stopping the parasite from getting into the cells could prevent the disease.

Joshua-Tor's team says drugs that stop the two arms joining, or stop the joined arms holding on to the red blood cell protein, might prevent malaria.

Alternatively, a vaccine could work by stimulating our immune system to recognise and attack the parasite protein EBA-175.

Malaria kills between one and three million people every year. Nearly 80 per cent of these are children under five years old in sub-Saharan Africa.

Reference: Cell doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2005.05.033

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