Feb. 18, 2013, 5:38 p.m.
A team of Australian scientists in Canberra are celebrating a discovery that could potentially save more than 1 million lives every year.
Dr Natalie Spillman and Professor Kiaran Kirk from the Australian National University had for years been studying how the parasite that causes malaria works.
Recently they noticed a tiny pump the parasite uses to expel salt from its body.
"We've been interested for a long time in how the parasite controls its salt content," Professor Kirk said.
"And it was [what we discovered] then that really surprised us."
Dr Spillman says researchers at drug companies in Singapore and the United States were also busy with discoveries.
"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]," she said.
But Professor Kirk says it was not until the two discoveries were combined, that a breakthrough was made.
"We then took their drug, put it together with our salt pump and showed that sure enough their drug blocked our salt pump," Professor 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," Professor Kirk said.
"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 working, the boat fills with water and the boat sinks.
"If you stop the salt pump working, the parasite fills with salt and the parasite sinks."
Malaria is spread to humans by infected mosquitoes.
Despite worldwide efforts to protect people from mosquito bites, the disease continues to kill more than 1 million people every year.
Most of those deaths are in third world countries where access to repellents and mosquito nets are limited.
Professor Kirk says the best result would be to get the drug into those areas as soon as possible.
"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 production of the drug."
But Professor Kirk says he is not claiming to have cured the deadly disease.
"Parasites are continually becoming resistant to drugs," he said.
"So it's a continual race.
"We develop the drug, the parasite becomes resistant."
But Professor Kirk is hopeful that the latest discovery from inside ANU's biology laboratory can finally turn the tables on the disease.
"This particular drug is the first genuinely new drug to be tested on malaria patients for 20 years," he said.
"The malaria parasites 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."