Stories about: malaria

“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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Malaria research ripe for innovation funding: One man’s journey

african villageMalaria presents a formidable global challenge. It affects more than 200 million people worldwide every year, and more than 1 million people die from it, primarily pregnant women and children under the age of 5 years. Resistance to existing anti-malarial medications is a constant, and vaccines have not proven effective. But the disease also presents a unique opportunity for researchers to uncover innovative solutions. As a result, even the cash-conscious National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investing in malaria research.

Boston Children’s Hospital physician Jeffrey Dvorin, MD, PhD, recently received a High-Risk, High-Reward New Innovator Award from the NIH. The award is reserved for early-stage investigators whose research has potential for significant impact, but who may lack enough data for a traditional NIH R01 grant. Dvorin will use the $1.5 million, five-year grant to pursue research that could lead to new tools to combat malaria.

The challenges of treating malaria begin at the molecular level. To develop new anti-malarial tools, the research community needs to understand how the parasite replicates. Determining which genes are essential to parasite replication could provide the data needed to develop new medications or an effective vaccine. But scientists have not yet determined functions for more than half of the 5,500 genes in Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the majority of malaria infections in Africa.

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Moving in on what makes malaria move

The exceedingly complex life cycle of malaria. Within it lies the key to developing a vaccine against the parasite. (CDC)

The malaria parasite (or parasites: four species of Plasmodium can cause malaria in people) has a really complex life cycle.  That complexity has allowed this mosquito-borne parasite from bringing untold misery to the human race for millennia. The World Health Organization thinks it causes 216 million cases of disease every year, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some 3.3 billion people live at risk of malaria infection around the globe. Even in the United States, where malaria was officially eradicated 60 years ago, there are still about 1,500 cases every year.

All these numbers add up to one fact: we need a vaccine, badly. This is where malaria’s complexity becomes a problem.

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Shining light on a global killer — in 3D

Efforts to create a malaria vaccine have had limited success. Springer and colleagues solved the 3D structure of a key protein on the parasite -- and found a fragment which they'll soon test as a vaccine. (Photos_by_Angela/Flickr)

From the perspective of a wealthy country, malaria is a problem that is solved. It’s like smallpox. We ask, Who gets it?  Who cares? Isn’t it better to invest in diabetes?

In truth, malaria is more infectious than ever, endemic to 106 nations, threatening half the world’s population and stalling economic development and prosperity.

That’s part of the reason why Timothy A. Springer, PhD, an investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular (PCMM) Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Immune Disease Institute (IDI), took on Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Another is that he likes solving problems in immunology – and has made his name discovering molecules that both promote and fight infections, in part by understanding their structures.

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Holiday books 2: Evidence-based reading and ranting

As part two of our series of Friday holiday book posts, we’re featuring some reader suggestions. Among these are some of the most popular books now at Children’s Hospital Boston, as judged by their turnover. “We can’t keep them in the library,” says head librarian Alison Clapp.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, by Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). Vampires may be all the rage in some circles, but they cannot compete against female mosquitoes risking a life-ending swat to acquire a drop of precious blood to nourish their eggs.

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