New research is giving new hope for anti-malaria causes. A study led by a team at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis is suggesting that a certain compound can make a human’s immune system treat malaria-infected red blood cells the same as they do aging red blood cells.

In mice, the immune system destroyed the infected blood cells, leaving uninfected red blood cells intact. Within 48 hours, the parasite was no longer detectable in the bloodstream.

Researchers focused on targeting a specific protein in malaria known as ATP4. The protein is vital to regulating malaria’s sodium balance, and it has been a target of anti-malarials before.

A compound, dubbed SJ733, was used to target the activity of ATP4. The compound has been researched before as a possible drug candidate to target malaria. The team at St. Jude’s were able to use the compound to change the structure of malaria-infected red blood cells, making them appear more rigid and change shape. Exactly the pattern of aging red blood cells.

Within 24 hours, the SJ733 compound had killed off 80 percent of the infected cells in mice, and malaria was undetectable within 48 hours.

“These results indicate that SJ733 and other compounds that act in a similar fashion are highly attractive additions to the global malaria eradication campaign, which would mean so much for the world’s children, who are central to the mission of St. Jude,” says R. Kiplin Guy, Ph.D. and chair of the St. Jude Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics.

The research is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. For now, researchers know the efficacy in mice. The next step is safety and human trials. If it works, medical teams in the field could have the silver bullet they have been desperately looking for.

Malaria kills 627,000 people worldwide each year. A widely-available 48-hour treatment would revolutionize the ability of NGOs to effect change in the poorest of nations.

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