Half of the world’s population is at risk for malaria, according to the World Health Organization — and new science is one step closer to developing a vaccine for this life-threatening disease.

Malaria is transmitted by Plasmodium falciparum, a parasite a person gets when bitten by an infected mosquito. The parasite goes from one red blood cell to another in a matter of minutes, and the current study, published in Biophysical Journal, uses laser optical tweezers to better understand this invasion. "Using laser tweezers to study red blood cell invasion gives us an unprecedented level of control over the whole process and will help us to understand this critical process at a level of detail that has not been possible before," Julian Rayner, lead study author of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said in a press release.

Researchers were able to see how strongly recently emerged parasites adhere to new red blood cells after picking them up with tweezers and inserting them into another, which is to say not strongly at all. The interaction is so weak researchers believe invasion could potentially be blocked with a combination of drugs.

"We now plan to apply this technology to dissect the process of invasion and understand what genes and proteins function at what step," Rayner said. "This will allow us to design better inhibitors or vaccines that block invasion by targeting multiple steps at the same time.

Rayner and his team aren’t the only ones working to improve the world's approach to malaria. Tanay Tandon is the 17-year-old from Cupertino, Calif., who founded Athelas, a malaria blood-testing kit for smartphones. Athelas works to conduct an automated blood analysis through computer vision and an attachable, affordable lens.

“I strongly believe that artificial intelligence and research can be used to drive innovative changes in society,” Tandon told The Next Web, “and my goal as I enter college and the workforce will be to continue working on products such as Athelas that can enact positive changes through the power of computer science. In the near future, I will be readying a production-ready model for Athelas and presenting it at the upcoming Y Combinator interview.”

Most malaria cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, though Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Europe have been affected, according to WHO. But early diagnosis and treatment prevents death. Diagnostic testing, like Tandon’s, and new treatments, (almost) like Rayner’s, will be key in reducing worldwide risk.

Source: Crick A, Theron M, Tiffert T, Lew V, Cicuta P et al. "Quantitation of malaria parasite-erythrocyte cell-cell interactions using optical tweezers." Biophysical Journal. 2014.