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“Teenage” red blood cells could hold the key to a malaria vaccine

A T cell (right) launches an attack on an immature red blood cell called a reticulocyte. This immune response could help design a malaria vaccine.
A T cell (right) launches an attack on an immature red blood cell (left) infected with a malaria parasite called P. vivax. At the arrow, the T cell breaches the infected cell’s membrane to deliver death-inducing enzymes. Credit: Lieberman lab/Boston Children’s Hospital

Malaria parasite infection, which affects our red blood cells, can be fatal. Currently, there are about 200 million malaria infections in the world each year and more than 400,000 people, mostly children, die of malaria each year.

Now, studying blood samples from patients treated for malaria at a clinical field station in Brazil’s Amazon jungle, a team of Brazilian and American researchers has made a surprising discovery that could open the door to a new vaccine.

“I noticed that white blood cells called killer T cells were activated in response to malaria parasite infection of immature red blood cells,” says Caroline Junqueira, PhD, a visiting scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS).

For red blood cells, this activity is unusual.

“Infected red blood cells aren’t recognized by our immune system’s T cells in the same way that most other infected cells of the human body are,” says Judy Lieberman, MD, PhD, chair in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Digging deeper, Junqueira, Lieberman and collaborators have found a completely unexpected immune response to malaria parasites that infect immature blood cells called reticulocytes. The revelation could help to design a new vaccine that might be capable of preventing malaria.

Their findings, published today in Nature Medicineuncover special cellular mechanisms and properties specific to “teenaged” reticulocytes and a strain of malaria called Plasmodium vivax that enable our T cells to recognize and destroy both the infected reticulocytes and the parasites inside them.

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