An EU-funded research programme has claimed a breakthrough in malaria research, opening the door to a possible cure for the lethal disease.
According to World Health Organisation statistics, malaria infected around 225 million and killed nearly 800,000 people worldwide in 2009.
Efforts to find a remedy have so far been hampered by the parasite's ability to quickly develop drug resistance.
Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted through the bites of infected mosquitoes. In the human body, the parasites infect and multiply in red blood cells.
Joint research led by EU-funded laboratories demonstrated that the parasite hijacks enzymes active in human cells to serve its own purposes. When researchers used cancer chemotherapy drugs to treat the host cells of victims, the malaria parasite was halted in its tracks.
The research involved four projects funded by the EU – called ANTIMAL, BIOMALPAR, MALSIG and EVIMALAR – and was led by laboratories in the UK, France and Switzerland with partners from Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden, along with many developing nations severely affected by malaria.
Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: "This discovery could lead to an effective anti-malaria treatment that would save millions of lives and transform countless others. This demonstrates yet again the added value both of EU-funded research and innovation in general and of collaboration with researchers in developing countries in particular."
Since 2002, the EU has invested nearly €180 million in malaria research through the EU's Framework Programmes for Research.
Christian Doerig, a spokesman for the research team based at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, said that the breakthrough represented a tool that could make a "definite contribution" to finding a remedy for malaria.
He said that more research would be needed before drug trials could begin, and that pharmaceutical companies would need to join the research efforts. But he said he was optimistic that this would now happen.
The intellectual property rights of any discovery funded by the EU Framework Programmes belong to the researchers and any drug companies with which they enter agreements.