Duke University assistant professor Emily Derbyshire and colleagues identified more than 30 enzyme-blocking molecules, called protein kinase inhibitors, that curb malaria before symptoms start.
By focusing on treatments that act early, before a person is infected and feels sick, the researchers hope to give malaria especially drug resistant strains less time to spread.
Malaria is caused by a single celled parasite called Plasmodium that spreads from person to person through mosquito bites.
When an infected mosquito bites, parasites in the mosquito's saliva first make their way to the victim's liver, where they silently grow and multiply into thousands of new parasites before invading red blood cells - the stage of the disease that triggers malaria's characteristic fevers, headaches, chills and sweats.
Most efforts to find safe, effective, low-cost drugs for malaria have focused on the later stage of the infection when symptoms are the worst.
But Derbyshire and her team are testing chemical compounds in the lab to see if they can identify ones that inhibit malaria during the short window when the parasite is still restricted to the liver, before symptoms start.
One of the advantages of her team's approach is that focusing on the liver stage of the malaria life-cycle - before it has a chance to multiply - means there are fewer parasites to kill.
Using a strain of malaria that primarily infects rodents, Derbyshire and Jon Clardy of Harvard Medical School tested 1,358 compounds for their ability to keep parasites in the liver in check, both in test tubes and in mice.
Focusing on a particular group of enzyme-blocking compounds called protein kinase inhibitors, they identified 31 compounds that inhibit malaria growth without harming the host. Several of the compounds are currently in clinical trials to treat cancers like leukaemia and myeloma.
The same compounds that stopped the stage of malaria that lurks in the liver also worked against the stage that lives in the blood.
Malaria-free mice that received a single dose before being bitten by infected mosquitoes were able to avoid developing the disease altogether.
The findings appear in the journal ChemBioChem.