London: A vaccine that could wipe out malaria is just two years away, as scientists claim to have found the "Achilles heel" of the mosquito-borne disease which claims a million lives every year.   

Malaria is spread by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite which invades human red blood cells. Past efforts to develop a vaccine to prevent the parasite invading red blood cells have failed -- one of the challenges being that the parasite is highly adaptable.
   
Now, scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge identified a single red blood cell receptor that appears to be essential for the parasite to invade the human body.   
   
The new discovery, which is levelled as the "Achilles' heel" of malaria, could soon lead to the development of an effective immunisation programme, the researchers said.
   
"Our research seems to have revealed an Achilles' heel in the way the parasite invades our red blood cells," lead study author Dr Gavin Wright said.
   
"Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process," Wright said.
   
The researchers, who detailed their study in the journal Nature, said vaccine trials targeting this particular cell are now anticipated within the next two to three years.
   
"We are at a very early stage and it may be ten to twenty years before this can be clinically applied but we are excited by it," Dr Wright said.
   
Dr Wright and his team demonstrated that by targeting the single receptor the parasite was unable to penetrate the red blood cells.
   
It is now hoped that this can be exploited to develop new and effective vaccines, which will be the most cost-effective way to prevent infection.
   
However, for such an approach to work on a large scale the vaccine must be highly effective to ensure immunity.

Professor Adrian Hill, Wellcome Trust senior investigator at the Jenner Institute, Oxford, said: "Recent reports of some positive results from ongoing malaria vaccine trials in Africa are encouraging, but in the future more effective vaccines will be needed if malaria is ever to be eradicated.”
   
"The discovery of a single receptor that can be targeted to stop the parasite infecting red blood cells offers the hope of a far more effective solution."
   
Most malaria deaths involve children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO there were 243 million estimated cases and nearly 1 million deaths from malaria in 2008.

Agencies