The most deadly and contagious strain of malaria actually isn’t found in Africa- it makes its home in Southeast Asia and South America. Plasmodium vivax, as the strain is known, has been a worldwide challenge to treat and prevent. However, thanks to groundbreaking lab work from Washington University in St. Louis, researchers are developing an understanding of how this form of malaria works and what can be done against it.
P. vivax is unique among malaria strains in that it can remain dormant in the body for years before its victims show any symptoms. It does this by binding to a protein on the surface of red blood cells. This is harmless until two such red blood cells meet; at that point, the two parasites bind to each other around the two red blood cells, squeezing the blood cells together and rendering both useless. Niraj Tolia(left), assistant professor of molecular microbiology and of biochemistry and molecular biophysics as well as senior author of the study, compares this form of bonding to a pair of tongs around the red blood cells.
“It’s a very intricate and chemically strong interaction that was not easily understood before,” he adds in a WUSTL news release. Now he and his lab are looking into ways to stop this strain in its tracks by studying the blood of people who are immune to P. vivax. “For example, some people have a mutation that eliminates the protein on red blood cell surfaces that P. vivax binds to, and they tend to be resistant to the parasite.” Other people have antibodies that attach themselves to the parasite’s binding protein, preventing the parasite from binding to the red blood cells. Working from the results of Tolia’s research, the next goal is to develop vaccines that provide this same sort of immunity by preventing P. vivax from binding to red blood cells.
(A sample of red blood cells with P.vivax stained in purple. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and CFCF)
This research was supported by funding from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Foundation, an American Heart Association postdoctoral fellowship, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. For a more detailed report on research funding and university grants for the Washington University at St. Louis, read our WUSTL Funding Statistics Report:
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