While the World Health Organization (WHO) says increased preventative measures have seen malaria mortality rates fall by 42 percent since 2000, the disease still claims more than half a million lives each year. A study carried out by a team of Melbourne-based researchers has shown that blocking a gateway used by the parasite to export proteins ultimately causes it to die off, opening the door for the development of new types of anti-malarial drugs.

Scientists from the Burnet Institute, Deakin University and Monash University were building on previous research that suggests the existence of a pore used by the malaria parasite to export proteins into their host cell. This process is critical to the parasite's survival, as the proteins gain important nutrients and are able to evade the immune system by sticking to the walls of blood vessels, in turn allowing the deadly parasite to mature.

Recently, at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, scientists were able to prevent the parasite invading red blood cells by blocking calcium signaling between the parasite and the host cell. The Melbourne researchers focused on the pathway through which these proteins travel.

"We actually were able to identify the gateway the parasite uses to export 350 to 400 types of proteins," Tania De Koning-Ward, Medical School Associate Professor at Deakin University tells Gizmag. "By blocking these proteins from where they need to be we killed off the parasite and have shown that components of the gateway will be a good target for anti-malarial drugs."

The team tested its method – a complex genetic approach where the five proteins making up the gateway were switched off in a regulated way – across both human and rodent strains of malaria. Its findings were corroborated by similar research conducted in the US, which also pointed to one particular pathway for the export of the dangerous proteins. Koning-Ward is hopeful the consistency of these findings could go a long way to hastening the development of new anti-malarial drugs.

"Drug discovery can cost millions of dollars," she says. "It is always reassuring to find the same result across different scenarios and research groups so we can better direct resources."

The researchers will now turn their focus to the makeup of the gateway and developing inhibitors and compounds that could prevent if from forming.

The team's findings were published in the journal Nature.