A team of Israeli scientists have just discovered how malaria parasites are able to evade the human immune system.
The result of their research could possibly save millions of lives.
Each year up to one million persons – many pregnant women and young children – die to malaria infections, mostly in the developing world.
Yet, drug therapies can only go so far to stop the deadly parasite spread through mosquito bites.
In 2013, Hebrew University Prof. Ron Dzikowski won a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to a decode the genetic trick the parasite uses to evade the immune system and make people sick.
“Others are looking for drugs or vaccines, but the parasite is always one step ahead of us,” Dzikowski told Israel 21c last year. “Our approach is to understand how these parasites evade immune attack, and then we can learn how to disrupt this ability.”
Since then, along with his PhD student Inbar Amit-Avraham, Dzikowski has discovered the genetic key to the parasite’s infection.
Abigail Klein Leichmann of Israel 21c explained the important discovery made in the Hebrew University labs.
“At the precise moment in the cell cycle when a specific gene of the parasite is displayed, corresponding long noncoding RNA molecules (lncRNAs) incorporate themselves into DNA structures, determining how the parasite selects a single gene for expression while the rest of the family is kept silent,” Leichmann noted.
She further explained that as a result of this knowledge, “the researchers were able to activate silent genes by expressing their specific lncRNAs molecules, thus demonstrating clearly how they manage to pull off their microscopic game of hide and seek.”
In other words, the Hebrew University researchers now know how the parasites are getting around the human immune system. With that information in hand, they can work to stop the parasite in its tracks.
“Understanding the mechanisms by which the parasite evades immunity takes us closer to finding ways to either block this ability,” or to force the parasite to expose its entire antigenic repertoire and thus allow the human immune system to overcome the disease,” Dzikowski said, suggesting his team’s discovery puts science one step closer to curing malaria for good.