Scientists in Singapore have discovered how the malaria parasite hides in the human body to avoid being hunted down, and a possible way to prevent this. This could lead to new and more effective ways to fight the infectious, mosquito-borne disease.
The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) scientists found that after the parasite infects red blood cells, it generates a type of protein called Stevor on the infected cells' surface to attract other healthy red blood cells. The healthy cells form a protective bubble or rosette around the infected cells, shielding them from detection.
This tactic also allows the parasites to "jump" into the nearby healthy cells to infect them, instead of having to travel in the bloodstream to hunt for targets.
The longer the parasites are exposed in the bloodstream, the higher the chance they will be spotted by the body's white blood cells and antibodies, which will destroy them.
Professor Peter Preiser, chair of NTU's School of Biological Sciences, said the scientists also found that different parasite strains created different types of Stevor, initially complicating the search for a way to disrupt this protective mechanism.
When the team of scientists tested different antibodies against each type of parasite, "one parasite was recognised by one antibody we had, while another parasite was recognised by another antibody," he said.
But the scientists then made a second, crucial discovery - that the Stevors all bind to the same protein on the healthy red blood cells. So instead of having to target the different Stevors, they could target just the single protein, called Glycophorin C, on the healthy cells.
Prof Preiser said: "If we can create an antibody to bind to the Glycophorin C, we can block the Stevors from binding to them, disrupting the parasites' protection." He added that more work is needed as the scientists have to be careful about targeting a protein found naturally in the human body.
The team's research was published this month in scientific journal Cell Host and Microbe.