Scientists have discovered a class of chemicals in seaweed which they say could be a new weapon in their battle against malaria.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that certain chemicals the plant uses to fight off fungal diseases could have anti-malaria properties for people.

If the findings are confirmed, they hoped, it will give doctors a vital new drug to treat a disease that kills more than one million people around the world every year, the Daily Mail reported.

Malaria is caused by a parasite Plasmodium falciparum spread by mosquitoes. The parasite has developed resistance to many antimalarial drugs and has even started to show resistance the most important drug -- aratemisinin.

But, the researchers said the class of seaweed compounds, called bromophycolides, could be the answer to the looming crisis.

Study author Dr Julia Kubanek, said: “These molecules are promising leads for the treatment of malaria, and they operate through an interesting mechanism that we are studying.

“There are only a couple of drugs left that are effective against malaria in all areas of the world, so we are hopeful that these molecules will continue to show promise as we develop them further as pharmaceutical leads.”

The chemical has already been tested in a laboratory against malaria and the next step is to test it in a mouse with the disease, the researchers told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

Other Georgia Tech researchers have begun research on artificially creating the compound in the laboratory. They hope to alter its chemical make up to improve its activity and lessen any side effects.

In seaweed, the compounds collects on light coloured patches where the plant has come under attack from fungal disease.

“It is marshalling its defences and displaying them in a way that blocks the entry points for microbes that might invade and cause disease,” Dr Kubanek said.

“Seaweeds don’t have immune responses like humans do. But instead, they have some chemical compounds in their tissues to protect them.”

Dr Kubanek said other useful compounds will emerge from the study of coral reefs.

Seaweed are a type of algae and are eaten by people all over the world. In Asia sheets of dried sea weed are used in soups or to wrap sushi.

The plants have been used for centuries to treat boils, dress wounds and boost immunity. They are also used to treat arthritis, colds, flu and infestations with worms.

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