Australian scientists have identified the mechanism linking malaria in pregnancy to low birth weight babies.
Researchers from the Burnet Institute and the University of Melbourne believe the discovery could enhance the hopes of survival in the 85 million pregnancies exposed to malaria globally every year.
Philippe Boeuf, the lead researcher on the study, said that placental malaria is a major cause of low birth weight, which is a major risk factor in 80 per cent of neonatal deaths.
Children born at a low weight are also at a higher risk of intellectual development issues and are more susceptible to chronic diseases such as diabetes in adulthood.
"Before now, no one understood the link between being infected with malaria in pregnancy and having an increased risk of delivering a low birth weight baby," Boeuf said in a media release on Wednesday.
"But we've identified the first mechanism that links the two, and this gives us the opportunity to try to improve fetal growth, and therefore, birth weight.
"Because low birth weight is the main cause of neonatal death, if we improve the birth weight, this could have a significant impact on neonatal survival, and allow a healthier adult life."
The researchers discovered that inflammation caused by malaria disrupts the mTOR signalling pathway which impairs the placenta's capacity to deliver amino acids, a major factor in foetal growth, to the foetus.
The discovery of mTOR inhibition gives scientists the opportunity to supplement the pathway, restroing its activity to normal, Boeuf said.
"There have been quite a few trials of nutritional supplementation of malaria-exposed pregnant women that had relatively modest impact on birth weight. We think that's because those interventions haven't been targeted specifically at mTOR," Boeuf said.
"The view of most of these interventions has been, well, these women and/or their fetuses are not getting enough nutrients, therefore if we give mothers dietary supplements, that should improve birth weight, but results have largely been inconsistent.
"The approach we are taking is, OK, we know that mTOR inhibition appears to be a driver of low birthweight, so let's research ways to activate mTOR, and those that show any effect, we'll take further and hopefully to implementation."