Targeting a key protein may help overcome the malaria parasite's increasing resistance to conventional drugs, UK researchers say.
Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes
The protein triggers the release of the parasite from red blood cells enabling it to invade neighbouring cells.
Blocking the protein stops the parasite in its tracks and could lead to the development of new anti-malaria drugs, a study in Cell suggests.
Malaria causes around three million deaths worldwide each year.
The team at the National Institute for Medical Research have been working on the protein - an enzyme called PfSUB1 - for a decade but they did not know until now it was involved in helping malaria propagate inside the body.
The Plasmodium falciparum parasite that causes malaria multiplies inside red blood cells until the daughter parasites, known as merozoites, are ready to infect other cells.
It was found that merozoites contain a set of previously unrecognised components called exonemes that are packed full of the PfSUB1 enzyme.
The enzyme is able to destroy existing cell structures allowing the parasite to escape the red blood cell and go on to infect other cells.
By scanning thousands of compounds, the researchers found a plant-derived molecule that was able to block the PfSUB1 enzyme preventing the merozoites from escaping.
In some developing countries, malaria is a huge problem, causing millions of deaths, but there is increasing resistance to existing treatments.
Dr Mike Blackman, an expert in parasitology said the research had identified a "druggable" target as the team had shown that it was possible to block the enzyme in question.
"It means there's a real potential for developing treatments.
"There is widespread resistance to anti-malaria drugs and that's a real issue in many parts of the world.
"We need to identify another Achilles heel that works in a novel way. The fact this is quite a different target would allow people to use a combination of drugs."
He added it would be several years before they could develop a treatment but the next step was to identify better inhibitors of the enzyme and to understand more about how the protein works.