New malaria infection discovery boosts vaccine hope

DISCOVERY of a key red cell molecule used by the malaria parasite gives renewed hope for an effective vaccine in the future, according to an international team of researchers.

Plasmodium falciparum, a blood parasite that causes malaria by invading and multiplying in the red blood cells, kills one to two million people annually.

“How the parasite invades red blood cells is not completely understood,” said Dr. Jose A. Stoute, senior investigator and team leader, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, Penn State College of Medicine.

“For many years it has been known that proteins called glycophorins are used by the parasite to gain entry into the red cell.”

Because infection can take place without glycophorins, researchers suspected that another protein is also involved. The identity of this protein remained a mystery for 20 years and it was named the “X” receptor.

A team of researchers now reports in PLoS Pathogens, the identity of this protein as the complement receptor 1 (CR1), also known to help protect red cells from attack by the immune system. CR1 has been suspected of having other roles in the development of malaria complications.

The team was able to demonstrate that this protein is important in the invasion of red cells by using several laboratory strains of malaria as well as strains obtained from Kenya.

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