Disease revelation: malaria a 'double-edged sword'

Disease revelation: malaria a 'double-edged sword'

Illuminate newsletter header, March 2016
March 2016

Malaria mosquito
A malaria mosquito infecting a human (credit: WEHI.TV).

For the first time, scientists have pinpointed why the immune system fails to develop immunity during malaria infection. 

New research has revealed that malaria parasites cause an inflammatory reaction that sabotages our body’s ability to protect itself against the disease. 

Malaria causes ‘self sabotage’

Dr Diana Hansen, Dr Axel Kallies and Dr Victoria Ryg-Cornejo led a team that examined how the immune system responded to malaria infection caused by Plasmodium falciparum. 

Dr Hansen said the team had discovered that inflammatory molecules driving the host immune response to malaria prevent the body from developing protective antibodies against the parasite.

“The strong inflammatory reaction that accompanies, and infact drives, severe clinical malaria is also responsible for silencing the key immune cells needed for long-term protection.”

“Its like a double-edged sword: the strong inflammatory reaction that accompanies, and infact drives, severe clinical malaria is also responsible for silencing the key immune cells needed for long-term protection against the parasite,” Dr Hansen said.

A stubborn infection

The disease has traditionally been difficult to manage because the human body is not good at developing long-lasting immunity to the parasite. “With many infections, a single exposure to the pathogen is enough for the body to make antibodies that will protect you for the rest of your life,” Dr Hansen said.

“However with malaria it can take up to 20 years for someone to build up immunity. During that time people are susceptible to reinfection as well as spreading the disease,” she said.

Hope for eradication

Dr Hansen said the discovery could improve new or existing malaria vaccines, including those that have previously been ineffective in clinical trials.

“Until now, malaria vaccines have had disappointing results."

“Until now, malaria vaccines have had disappointing results. We can now see a way of improving these responses, by tailoring or augmenting the vaccine to enable the body to make protective antibodies that target the malaria parasites,” she said.

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