Melbourne scientists have made the surprise discovery that malaria parasites can 'talk' to each other – a social behaviour to ensure the parasite's survival and improve its chances of being transmitted to other humans. The finding could provide a niche for developing antimalarial drugs and vaccines that prevent or treat the disease by cutting these communication networks. Professor Alan Cowman, Dr. Neta Regev-Rudzki, Dr. Danny Wilson, and colleagues from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, in collaboration with Professor Andrew Hill from the University of Melbourne's Bio21 Institute and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, showed that malaria parasites are able to send out messages in exosome-like vesicles to communicate with other malaria parasites in the body. The study was published on March 15, 2013 in Cell. Professor Cowman said the researchers were shocked to discover that malaria parasites work in unison to enhance 'activation' into sexually mature forms that can be picked up by mosquitoes, which are the carriers of this deadly disease. "When Neta showed me the data, I was absolutely amazed, I couldn't believe it," Professor Cowman said. "We repeated the experiments many times in many different ways before I really started to believe that these parasites were signalling to each other and communicating. But we came to appreciate why the malaria parasite really needs this mechanism – it needs to know how many other parasites are in the human to sense when is the right time to activate into sexual forms that give it the best chance of being transmitted back to the mosquito." Malaria kills about 700,000 people a year, mostly children aged under five and pregnant women. Every year, hundreds of millions of people are infected with the malaria parasite, Plasmodium, which is transmitted through mosquito bites.
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