Colorised scanning electron micrograph of a red blood cell infected with malaria parasites (centre blue). To the left are uninfected cells with a smooth red surface. Image credit: NIAID (CC BY 2.0)

Antibodies flag malaria-infected cells for destruction

Antibodies that help the immune system eliminate red blood cells infected with malaria could be the basis for a malaria vaccine.

Malaria is a deadly disease caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes. The parasite infects red blood cells, causing fever with flu-like symptoms. In some people, particularly pregnant women and children, the disease may be very serious and even lead to death. An effective malaria vaccine is urgently needed because malaria parasites are developing resistance to current drugs.

People living in areas where malaria is common develop specific proteins called antibodies that protect them from malaria. Learning more about how the antibodies achieve this, could help to develop better vaccines. Scientists already know some antibodies bind to the malaria parasites and prevent them from entering red blood cells. Some vaccines have been based on these antibodies. Other antibodies bind to infected cells flagging them for destruction by cells of the immune system. Immune cells called natural killer cells can eliminate viruses or cancer cells this way, but it was not clear if they could also eliminate malaria parasite-infected red blood cells.

Now, Arora et al. show that natural killer cells can selectively destroy malaria-infected red blood cells flagged with antibodies from people who live in areas where malaria is common. In laboratory experiments, natural killer cells from US volunteers, who were never exposed to malaria, did not kill normal or malaria-infected red blood cells. Adding antibodies collected from malaria-resistant volunteers from Africa allowed these natural killer cells from unexposed people to selectively seek out and destroy malaria-infected cells and leave uninfected red blood cells intact.

Arora et al. also found that the antibodies from the malaria-resistant volunteers bound to parasite proteins on the surface of infected blood cells. The experiments suggest that vaccines designed to stimulate the production of antibodies to malaria proteins that are displayed on infected red blood cells, could destroy the parasite in infected people and help prevent disease and save lives.

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