There is no licensed treatment for the mosquito borne disease which kills nearly a million people a year.
But scientists in Britain now say they have pinpointed its 'Achilles' heel' which could lead to an immunisation programme within the next two years.
'Our research seems to have revealed an Achilles' heel in the way the parasite invades our red blood cells,” said lead researcher Dr Gavin Wright.
'Our findings were unexpected and have completely changed the way in which we view the invasion process.'
Malaria is one of the world's biggest childhood killers and most of its victims are children under five living in sub-Saharan Africa.
For decades, scientists have been trying to come up with vaccines which prevent people getting infected or stop the parasite developing after it has got into the body.
These latest findings announced yesterday by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge show that the parasite needs to get through to a single receptor in order to invade the human body.
They have identified the crucial protein that locks itself onto the surface of human red blood cells to let the parasite inside. "The interaction [between malaria parasite and red blood cell] that we have found has the potential to be the basis of a vaccine that would save millions of lives," said The Sanger Institute’s Dr Julian Rayner.
"The malaria parasite shuttles between mosquitoes and humans. But the stage that actually causes the symptoms of the disease is where the parasite invades human red blood cells," Dr Rayner said. "It has to get inside a red blood cell to divide, spread and multiply – it's essential for the parasite's survival. But it's also a potential target for attack."
"This is possibly the most exciting vaccine target for the past 10 years."
In 2008, there were about 243 million cases and nearly1 million deaths from malaria, according to estimates from the World Health Organisation.
The breakthrough, published in the journal, Nature could improve future vaccines, said Professor Adrian Hill at the Jenner Institute in Oxford.
"Reports of positive results from ongoing trials in Africa are encouraging, but in the future more effective vaccines will be needed if malaria is to be eradicated," he said. "The discovery of a single receptor that can be targeted offers the hope of a far more effective solution."