JNU scientists develop new vaccine to fight malaria

New Delhi: Scientists from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have found a potential vaccine for malaria. Their research, published in the iScience journal by Cell Press, focuses on targeting a protein called Prohibitin in the malaria parasite.

Malaria is a disease transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes and has caused millions of deaths over the years, particularly in India. Despite efforts to control it, the World Health Organization’s 2022 report shows a grim reality, with 249 million cases and 60,800 deaths globally.

The parasite’s ability to develop resistance to anti-malarial drugs, combined with the lack of an effective vaccine, has impeded efforts to combat this deadly disease.

Research led by Professors Shailja Singh and Anand Ranganathan at JNU’s Special Centre for Molecular Medicine has identified a new complex of interactions between hosts and parasites that could be crucial for developing an effective vaccine strategy. “In our study, we have identified a novel PHB2-Hsp70A1A receptor ligand pair that helps the parasite gain infection inside the human host. The parasite protein PHB2 is therefore a potent vaccine candidate,” Prof. Shailja Singh told India Today.

Prohibitins are a family of proteins that play essential roles in various cellular functions, including mitochondrial activity and regulating the cell cycle.

Researchers found that the PfPHB2 protein on the merozoite surface interacts with the heat-shock protein Hsp70A1A on the surface of red blood cells. Remarkably, treatment with antibodies disrupted this interaction, stopping parasite growth completely. Moreover, antibodies against PfPHB2 were found in patients with active malaria in the Tripura region, an area where malaria is endemic.

“The presence of the PfPHB2 antibodies is a promising turning point towards malaria therapeutic development,” Manisha Marothia, a PhD student and the first author of the study was quoted as saying. Professors Anand and Shailja expressed their commitment to eliminating malaria, stating, “As scientists, our aspiration towards malaria elimination has never stopped and never will.”

The research was briefly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an increase in cases and deaths.

The team is optimistic that studies using mouse models will confirm their findings. Previously, the JNU team discovered a new method to combat malaria by targeting host lipids with an anti-tumor drug. Lipids are vital cell components involved in essential life processes, and the malaria parasite targets specific lipid molecules for its growth and development, the report added.

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