Malaria is a disease caused by the bite of a female anopheles mosquito infected with a protozoan parasite named Plasmodium falciparum. The symptoms associated with the disease include fever, chills, headache, nausea, muscle pain, and fatigue. In severe forms, it may cause anemia, coma, and even death. One of the characteristics of Plasmodium falciparum is to stick firmly to the surface lining of blood cells interrupting the flow of blood through blood vessels. The cells most affected by the malaria parasite are red blood cells (RBCs).
According to WHO, there were about 228 million cases of Malaria reported in 2018, of which 400,000 patients died. Moreover, about 67% of cases were reported in children below the age of 5. Researchers have recently conducted a study in the National Institute of Health in collaboration with other institutes that analyzes the potential of a novel treatment against malaria.
The study was designed to discover more about the mechanism of infection of the malarial parasite. The study revealed that some channels or holes pass across the membrane of a vacuole where the parasite resides, and then multiply and reproduces within the vacuole. Small channels are found on the surface of the vacuole membrane. These channels are involved in the transport of important nutrients and substances from red blood cells to the parasites. Thus, parasite continues to divide by using these nutrients.
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This flow of material between red blood cells and the parasite enables the parasite to survive within the host body. The parasite secretes some substances to hijack host cellular function. It was discovered in the study that the channels that allow the passage of nutrients across the membrane are made up of a protein termed as Niemann-Pick C1-related protein (PfNCR1). The protein is localized in an area where there is a close physical connection between the parasite membrane and the vacuole membrane. This important discovery has given rise to other possible treatment modalities against malaria by blocking the transport of nutrients in and starving the parasite.
The study was followed by a discovery of similar channels passing through the membrane thus allowing the two-way transport of nutrients and other substances. This research was conducted by Joshua Zimmerberg, an eminent investigator at Integrative Biophysics at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The said research study is published in Nature Communications. According to the study, the channels passing through the sacs are made up of exported protein 2(EXP2).
The regions where EXP2 is present are far away from the membrane of the parasite. It makes the researchers assume that the parasites must be using this distance to separate two systems of transport. These discoveries regarding the biological mechanism of the parasite to cause infection may lead to the development of many other reliable treatment strategies. One of these strategies is to knock out the genes that express transport channel proteins. Thus, it blocks the flow of nutrients across the membrane starving the parasite. Currently, researchers are exploring several other possible treatments against this deadly parasite.