Cellular Mutation Helps Keep Malaria Parasites Out

Cellular Mutation Helps Keep Malaria Parasites Out

A mutation on the surface of human red blood cells protects against a common type of malaria, according to researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Scientists have been aware of this tiny change in a specific protein called the Duffy blood-group antigen for years. But School of Medicine researchers have found this difference makes it harder for Plasmodium vivax—the parasite responsible for most malaria cases in Asia and the Americas—to lock on to the red cell’s surface and gain entry.

The parasite carries a protein that binds to the Duffy antigen, allowing the parasite to invade red blood cells. While investigating the binding process as a potential vaccine target, scientists at the School of Medicine found the parasite bound to cells with the mutation about half as well as they bound to cells without it. The team speculated that individuals with the mutation would be more resistant to malaria caused by Plasmodium vivax.

Researchers confirmed their lab results by working with an international team on a population study in Brazil. They analyzed data from 400 individuals tracked for malaria infection for more than a year and found those with the Duffy antigen mutation had a markedly reduced risk of vivax malaria compared with those without the mutation.

The findings¹ could eventually help medical researchers in the development of a vaccine against the disease, says Christopher King, MD, PhD, lead author on the study and professor of medicine and pathology within the School of Medicine’s Center for Global Health and Diseases. King collaborated with Brian Grimberg, PhD, assistant professor of international health, and Peter Zimmerman, PhD, professor of international health, biology and genetics, on the discovery.

1 Research funded by NIH grant No. R01-AI064478.