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London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Malaria Centre

Monkey malaria weak spot could prevent hop to humans


15 June 2016
Scientists have made a crucial discovery into how monkey malaria infects humans, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The researchers found Plasmodium knowlesi, a malaria parasite carried by macaque monkeys in Southeast Asia, relies on a single gene called NBPXa to invade human red blood cells. The study, conducted by researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the Francis Crick Institute in London, opens a new research route to develop a vaccine to protect people from the disease.


P. knowlesi can hop between monkeys and people if a mosquito bites an infected macaque and then a person. It is the only malaria parasite that can infect both humans and animals and the disease is as severe as that caused by the most dangerous of the human malaria parasites.


Recent deforestation and changing land use brings macaque monkeys infected with P. knowlesi into closer contact with people. In 2014, Malaysia recorded 2,500 cases of monkey malaria in people. This is almost eight in every ten incidences of malaria and reports of the disease are increasing across South East Asia.


The research team looked at the process of red blood cell invasion using samples of monkey malaria in the lab. They found that NBPXa is essential for the parasite to infect human blood cells. When they stopped the gene from working the parasite still infected monkey cells but could no longer get inside human cells – a process essential for the parasite to multiply and spread. 


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