The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum uses different pathways to invade red blood cells, evading the bodys immune system and complicating efforts to create effective vaccines against the disease. A research team led by Australias Alan F. Cowman, an international research scholar with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has identified a gene that the parasite uses to switch back and forth between invasion pathways.
Researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego contributed to the work, which was published in the August 26, 2005, issue of Science, P. falciparum causes the most lethal form of malaria, which results in one million deaths a year worldwide.
Some P. falciparum strains invade red blood cells via protein receptors on the surface that contain a sugar known as sialic acid. If scientists treat blood cells with an enzyme to remove sialic acid, the parasite can no longer invade. Other strains – including one called W2mef – can invade using the sialic acid receptors, but also have the ability to switch to other pathways if necessary.
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