In a new study published in Nature Communications, 23 researchers from Israel, Ireland and Australia reveal that the malaria-causing Plasmodium falciparum parasite deceives the immune system into leaving it alone while fighting a nonexistent invader. The scientists identified the protein that delivers the fake alert and devised a way to block it.

“Malaria is one of the world’s most devastating diseases – it’s a true bane of low-income countries, where it kills a thousand young children every day,” says Neta Regev-Rudzki of the Biomolecular Sciences Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

“To fight malaria, we need to understand the basic biology of Plasmodium falciparum and figure out what makes it such a dangerous killer. We’ve discovered a subversive strategy the malaria parasite employs in order to thrive in human blood. By interfering with this subversion of the immune system, it may be possible in the future to develop ways of blocking malarial infection.”

In her postdoctoral studies at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, Regev-Rudzki had previously discovered that Plasmodium falciparum parasites communicate with one another by releasing sac-like DNA-filled nanovesicles while in the incubation stage in the blood. Her research in Israel showed that the same mechanism is used to fool the immune system and allow the malarial infection to spread rapidly.

Among transmittable diseases, malaria is second only to tuberculosis in the number of victims, putting at risk nearly half of Earth’s population. More than 200 million people become infected every year; about half a million die, most of them children under five years of age.