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Spying on malaria parasites

Sergey Kapishnikov and Jens Als Nielsen

By combining two microscope techniques, a team of scientists led by Sergey Kapishnikov from the Niels Bohr Institute has managed to obtain new information about the mode of operation applied by malaria parasites when attacking their victims.

“In the lab we infected human red blood cells with malaria parasites. We then ultimately placed the infected blood cells in liquid nitrogen, which at -196 Celsius is extremely cold, and that way we were able to get new information about how the parasites work when they demolish the victim’s red blood cells. Observing this also gave us a number of new and creative ideas as to how the parasites can possibly be derailed, e.g. by tailoring a drug that can sabotage their waste disposal system so that they would end up drowning in their own litter. This is something we will examine further, and we are definitely looking towards developing concepts for new types of medication against malaria. Such antimalarials are sorely needed, since whenever a drug has been in use for some time, resistance against it will inevitably pop up and start spreading, and then you obviously need to introduce new medications,” says Kapishnikov.

The investigation was possible thanks to two different forms of advanced microscope examination, X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XRF) and soft X-ray tomography (SXT), conducted at synchrotron facilities in Spain, Germany and Switzerland. Combining the two methods enabled the scientists to locate where, internally, the damage-causing parasites store iron. This iron, which is very poisonous and potentially lethal to the malaria parasites, originates from the victim’s red blood cells, which the parasites have invaded.

“We were able to create 3D images of malaria parasites in human blood cells, which made it possible for us to see details never described before; some pertaining to the localization of heme in the parasites, and some linked to the crystallization process,” explains Kapishnikov.

Photo of Sergey Kapishnikov and Jens Als Nielsen