A team of researchers from the University of Melbourne have discovered that immature malaria parasites are more resistant to treatment than their mature counterparts.

The discovery could lead to significantly more effective treatments for the disease which has been developing a resistance to treatment at an alarming rate and currently kills one person every minute.

University of Melbourne researchers have shown for the first time that malaria parasites (Plasmodium falciparum)in the early stages of development are more than 100 times less sensitive to artemisinin-based drugs, which currently represent a last line of defense against malaria.

The research team, led by Professor Leann Tilley and Dr Nectorios Klonis, developed a novel approach to examine how the parasite responds to treatment under the conditions it encounters in the human body.

“We were surprised to find that juvenile parasites were up to 100 times less sensitive to the drug than mature parasites, and that in some strains the juvenile parasites showed a particularly high degree of resistance. This would result in a large number of juvenile parasites surviving against clinical treatment and helps explain how resistance to drugs develops,” Professor Tilley said.

In order to survive in the human body, the parasite must inhabit red blood cells for part of its life cycle,  to do this it first digests the cell contents including the haemoglobin protein which carries oxygen in blood.

The next steps for the team are to try and establish why certain strains are more resistant to artemisinin drug attack than others.