Australian National University (ANU) researchers, Natalie Spillman and Kiaran Kirk, who had for years been studying how the parasite 'Plasmodium', that causes malaria works, said they noticed recently that the parasite uses a tiny pump to expel salt from its body.
"We were interested for a long time to know how the parasite controls its salt content," Kirk said, adding "and it was [what we discovered] then that really surprised us."
Spillman said several scientists at various drug companies in Singapore and the United States were also busy in similar researches and working out an effective drug for the deadly disease.
"It was within a week or two of our identification of the pump that a paper came out reporting the discovery [of a new drug]," Spillman said.
Kirk said it was not until the two discoveries were combined, that a breakthrough was in site.
"We then took their drug and showed that sure enough their drug blocked the salt pump that we discovered, thus killing the parasite," Kirk said.
Kirk said he was hopeful that the latest discovery from ANU's biology laboratory can finally turn the tables on the widespread killer disease.
"This particular drug is the first genuinely new drug to be tested on malaria patients for 20 years," he said.
Kirk added that he is not claiming to have cured the deadly disease. "Parasites are continually becoming resistant to drugs. So it's a continual race. We develop the drug, the parasite becomes resistant."
"The malaria parasite's salt pump would seem to be an Achilles heel, particularly vulnerable to attack. Knowing this, we can look for other drugs that block this pump. We're looking now to see how clever the parasite is, can it change the salt pump so the drugs don't work anymore That's something that's crucial for us to know," Kirk said.
Kirk said they are looking forward to test the drug on humans. "First it has to go through all the tests to see that it really does kill parasites as effectively as we think in humans," he said.
"But once that's done and proven then everything is in place for the mass production of the drug." Kirk said.
By blocking the pump, the parasite could no longer get rid of any salt and so would eventually kill itself from an overload.
"Like water in a boat. If you've got a leaky boat that's leaking lots of water you need a pump to push the water out of the boat. If you stop that pump, the boat fills with water and the boat sinks. If you stop the salt pump working, the parasite fills with salt and dies," Kirk said.