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Taming of the malaria parasite? Study takes us one step closer to vaccine

Imagine you're a quick-change artist cum bank robber, evading police detection by serially switching costumes. In the middle of one of those suit-swaps, your pants fall off.

Plasmodium, the parasite responsible for malaria and a protean pathogen that beats the immune system by assuming different outward forms as it invades different tissues, may have been just caught with its pants down. As I describe in a news release on a just-out study from Ellen Yeh, MD, PhD, a instructor in pathology here, and University of California-San Francisco researcher Joe DeRisi, PhD:

The scientists have, in effect, created a domesticated strain of  Plasmodium — the one-celled parasite that causes malaria — that would no longer cause this dreaded disease.

Their findings not only make it possible to grow large volumes of this modified parasite, but also reveal how the parasite’s very survival turns on the production of one chemical — isopentenyl pyrophosphate, or IPP. These developments could help to speed up drug development and provide the basis for the first effective vaccine against malaria.

And it's about time. The disease current infects upwards of 250 million people each year and kills a million - mostly kids under five years of age. The closest thing to a vaccine at the moment is yet to emerge from the clinical-trial pipeline, and has been clocking in at a mere 50-65 percent efficacy rate.

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