Troublemaking protein found

Breakthrough in fighting severe malaria among children

Published: Tuesday 15 June 2004

the discovery of a malaria parasite protein associated with severe a childhood form of the disease could help save thousands of lives. The protein has been found by researchers from Denmark-based University of Copenhagen, uk-based London School of Tropical Hygiene, Tanzania-based National Institute for Medical Research, and the Netherlands based University Medical Centre.

The malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, infects human red blood cells (rbcs), which then burst causing life-threatening fever. The infected cells have parasite proteins on their surface, which help P falciparum to survive in the human hosts. People belonging to regions where malaria is endemic develop antibodies against these proteins. However, children with no previous exposure do not have these antibodies, and hence they have severe disease manifestation. Earlier studies had indicated that the proteins produced during severe manifestation are distinct from those produced during mild infections. But no one had identified proteins specific to severe infection.

The international team of researchers developed a computer simulation to identify and then compare the characteristics of proteins that are expressed by two types of P falciparum, causing severe malaria and less severe infection respectively. Thereafter, they identified the protein pfemp1, which is expressed on the surface of rbcs during severe childhood malaria. pfemp1 causes infected rbcs to stick inside the blood vessels of the spleen -- the organ which removes infected cells. In this way, the protein aids the survival of the parasite.

"Our data suggest that it is possible to develop a disease ameliorating vaccine against severe malaria that destroys the protein," they researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (Vol 199, No 9, May 3, 2004).

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