Carbs could be key to effective malaria vaccine

Australian researchers have made a breakthrough that could lead to new malaria vaccines and treatments being developed within the next couple of years.

Experts from Melbourne independent medical research centre, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, have discovered carbohydrates play a vital role in the malaria parasite's infection of humans.

Justin Boddey and his team made the discovery, which debunks the long-held belief that the single-celled malaria parasite only uses proteins to infect humans.

"So what this research has shown is that the parasite tags many of the proteins on its surface with carbohydrates," he told AM.

"And this ability to do so is really important for the parasite to be able to complete its lifecycle."

Dr Boddey's team found that without carbohydrates, the parasite cannot infect humans.

But he said current vaccine trials were only based on mimicking the parasite's protein structures.

"What we realised is that that we're probably priming people's immune systems with proteins that aren't quite modified correctly, they're not presented the right way, because the vaccine is not having this carbohydrate tag attached to it," he said.

"What we want to do is be able to engineer ways to put the carbohydrate onto the protein, and many forms of that currently exist, so it shouldn't be that much of a stretch to think that that could happen reasonably quickly in a couple of years."

The discovery could prove significant to the more than 200 million people infected each year with the debilitating and potentially deadly malaria parasite.

"Malaria is still one of the most important diseases in the world," Dr Boddey said.

"It's certainly not a problem in Australia but it's a big problem on our back doorstep and in the Asia and Oceania region … and as of the end of last year over 650,000 people died as a result of that infection."

Mosquito studied in air-tight prison

How do you research mosquitos if they don't live here? You bring one into the country.

This required approval from the Federal Parliament, which allowed only one member of the species of mosquito to be brought from India to Melbourne.

"We had to change the rules of government in 2010 to allow us to introduce that mosquito into our research facility," Dr Boddey said.

Not only did they have to change the rules, but Dr Boddey said the institute had to build an insectary — a facility that does not even leak air — to make sure the mosquito could not escape.

"In fact, it's drawing air into the facility from outside through very, very small filters that mosquitos absolutely couldn't fit through," he said.

"We also used multiple rooms, so the room we actually have the mosquitos in is surrounded by another room, that's surrounded by another room, that's then surrounded by an air lock.

"So there's no way they'll be able to get beyond that barrier."