Scientists in Singapore have discovered new information about how red blood cells change as they age, and the discovery could lead to new ways to fight malaria infections.
Red blood cells are essentially pouches filled with haemoglobin, a protein which carries oxygen to the rest of the body.
In order to reach every cell in the body, the red blood cells must be able to squeeze through blood vessels, or capillaries, half their diameter or thinner.
But the blood cells are constantly exposed to toxic molecules while they carry out their work, which causes them to be damaged and eventually die.
Researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology studied how the red blood cell's structure changes by sucking single cells into a small glass tube and applying pressure, which mimics the damage they sustain in the human body.
They discovered that, over time, the damage causes the cell's membrane to stiffen. Its internal scaffolding, also called the cytoskeleton, becomes compressed.
The cell then becomes less flexible and unable to move through the network of capillaries, making it unable to circulate oxygen.
But the scientists, whose laboratories focus partly on malaria infection, also discovered that this skeletal compression works against the malaria parasite.
Assistant professor Rajesh Chandramohanadas explained: "The malaria has to make a hole in the red blood cell's membrane to get into the cell to infect it.
"When the red blood cell becomes stiffer and the skeleton is clumped together, the parasite cannot make these holes."
He noted that this information improves researchers' understanding of malaria infection, as old cells in blood are often not infected by malaria.
The team now plans to study how this new information could be explored for developing new ways to fight malaria.
The team's work was published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, which is part of the prestigious Nature Publishing Group.
Malaria is responsible for almost one million deaths each year globally, most of them young children.
This article was first published on June 8, 2015.
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