Dream home: Malaria parasite renovates to suit its tastes

The malaria parasite survives in its host by remodelling the red blood cells in which it dwells. Once ensconced in its newly refurbished home, the parasite evades detection by the host's immune system. Alan F. Cowman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) international research scholar at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues report on studies that reveal this clever survival strategy, in the December 10, 2004 issue of the journal Science. Their findings provide a novel target for new anti-malaria drugs.

Cowman and his research team have identified the mechanism that enables the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum to export proteins across a cell membrane to establish infection in the erythrocytes, or red blood cells, of the host. The researchers also have identified a subset of proteins from about 400 surveyed that appear vital to the parasite's survival in the host.

Cowman is one of 132 HHMI international research scholars in 29 countries. Through its international research program, HHMI is building a global network of outstanding scientists whose work outside the United States is contributing to our understanding of basic biological processes or disease mechanisms. There are 11 international research scholars in Australia.

P. falciparum, which infects several hundred million people each year and kills one to two million, causes the most severe form of malaria in humans. Once in the blood, the parasite's continuous asexual multiplication inside the red blood cells is responsible for the clinical symptoms of malaria and the associated incidence of disease and death.

To infect the host, the parasite exports proteins through three membranes: the parasite membrane, the parasitophorous vacuole and the erythrocyte membrane.

"It has been an enigma in biology how the parasite transfers proteins across the second membrane, the parasitophorous vacuole, and establishe

Contact: Jennifer Donovan
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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