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Noble Prize Winning Artificial Intelligence to map malaria-human contact

A group of Melbourne scientists could soon develop a vaccine to fight malaria after discovering for the time how malaria-parasites invade the human cells.

Using a Nobel Prize-winning technology known as cryo-EM (cryo-electron microscopy), scientists have visualized at an atomic level how a malaria parasite known as Plasmodium vivax comes in contact with the human body.

The technology captures the image through an “atomic-scale blueprint. As seen through the image, the parasite (in yellow) first invades the red blood cells and gradually spreads out the body causing the malaria-infected person to exhibit the primary symptoms such as fever and chills.

Associate Professor Tham says that P.vivax is not ordinarily seen through the human eyes. However, with this technology scientists have closely observed how the parasite infects the human body. “This is critical for our next step, which is to develop anti-malaria drugs and vaccines, says Tham.

There have been several studies in the past centered on developing vaccines for malaria. However, the researchers were halted by technical challenges such as the lack of a device to solve complex structures. Tham says, “Cryo-EM is really opening the door for our researchers to gain deeper insights about malaria which could not have been possible in the past.”

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Through the 3-D map, the team was able to trace the exact details of the parasite-host interaction and identify its weak spots. Dr. Gruszczyk says that the team will use the weak spots to control the virus from binding with human cells. Further studies on how to develop antibodies to block this activity will be through using an X-ray crystallography facilities at the Australian Synchrton.

“With this crystal map, we will study how to go back to the parasite and pull out the part of the protein that will make the possible vaccine,” says Dr. Gruszczyk.

p.vivaxis the most common malaria parasite which is found in many countries, most particularly in Africa. It has a great propensity to hide in a person’s liver and remain undetected even after treatment, which is one of the reasons for recurrent malaria infections.

This parasite is very diverse, which why previous studies have encountered many challenges in dissecting its structure. Now that the researchers have identified its molecular machinery, they are ready to expound on their research.

The Melbourne scientists that through Artificial Intelligence, they will finally be able to create a new vaccine to shield the human body from malaria infections.

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