SYDNEY - Researchers at the Menzies School of Health Research, in Darwin, have discovered a key gene in the genome of the parasite that causes cerebral malaria.

After many years of searching, the researchers, led by David Kemp, have identified the gene which makes red blood cells infected with the parasite stick to the lining of blood vessels of various tissues, including those of the brain.

Investigating that stickiness, known as cytoadherence, in the laboratory has proved difficult because when the cerebral malaria parasite is bred in the laboratory, the portion of the parasite's chromosome containing the relevant gene is always lost.

Kemp said the culturing process must somehow select against genes in the relevant fragment of the parasite's chromosome.

He said the research team at Menzies had identified the relevant gene, which was called cytoadherence-linked asexual gene (clag), and confirmed its role by engineering a version of the gene into a normal parasite.

The next stage in the team's research will be to use its new knowledge to identify the receptors used by the infected cells in adhering to tissues, and then find a means of blocking the receptor. - Mark Lawson