Imprisoning parasites can deter malaria’s spread

Disabling protein contains disease-causing organisms within blood cells

PHILADELPHIA — Locking malaria inside red blood cells may prevent mosquitoes from spreading the disease from person to person, and researchers may now know which key to throw away. Disabling one protein that the parasite uses to escape from blood cells can keep malaria from reproducing in mosquitoes. Svetlana Glushakova, a cell biologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md., reported the finding December 9 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology.

Ordinarily, malaria-causing parasites seal themselves behind two membranes inside red blood cells of infected people. To reproduce in mosquitoes, the parasites have to break out of their hiding compartment, called a vacuole, and then bust through the red blood cell’s outer membrane. Opening the membranes requires the action of proteins that form pores.

Genetically disabling one of those pore-forming proteins, called PPLP2, allows the malaria parasites to break free of the vacuole but keeps them firmly sealed inside the red blood cell, Glushakova and colleagues discovered.

Future drugs that interfere with PPLP2 would not cure an infected patient but could keep the disease from spreading to others, Glushakova said.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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