Scientists in Australia have revealed how malaria parasites cause an inflammatory reaction that disrupts the body's ability to provide protection against the disease. They believe that this discovery could help invent new or improve existing malaria vaccines by boosting key immune cells.

Researchers from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute determined why the immune system fails to develop immunity during malaria infection. According to them, inflammatory molecules released by the body to fight the infection caused by Plasmodium falciparum prevent the production of antibodies.

"We have now shown that it was a double-edged sword: the strong inflammatory reaction that accompanies and in fact drives severe clinical malaria is also responsible for silencing the key immune cells needed for long-term protection against the parasite," lead author Diana Hansen said in a press release. "Specialised immune cells called helper T cells join forces with B cells to generate these protective antibodies. However, we showed that during malaria infection critical inflammatory molecules actually arrest development of helper T cells and therefore the B cells don't get the necessary instructions to make antibodies."

The World Health Organisation reported that there are 214 million cases of malaria and 438,000 deaths globally as of September 2015. However, malaria incidences have fallen by 37 percent since 2000. At the same time, mortality has reduced by 60 percent.

Hansen added that treating the disease has always been difficult because the body is not good at developing long-lasting immunity. It can take up to two decades for someone to build up strong immunity to be protected. During such period, people exposed to malaria are prone to reinfection, can become sick several times and spread the disease.

Nevertheless, researchers are optimistic that their finding can lead to new breakthroughs in treating malaria or lay the foundation for the construction of new malaria vaccines. Hansen is also hopeful that the results may help previously ineffective vaccines.

“This research opens the door to therapeutic approaches to accelerate development of protective immunity to malaria and improve efficacy of malaria vaccines," Hansen said. "Until now, malaria vaccines have had disappointing results. We can now see a way of improving these responses, by tailoring or augmenting the vaccine to boost development of helper T cells that will enable the body to make protective antibodies that target the malaria parasites."