Half of the 2 million deaths from malaria each year result from severe anemia caused by the duplicitous Plasmodium parasite, which not only destroys healthy red blood cells, but also blocks the production of new cells to replace them. New research shows Plasmodium adds insult to injury in accomplishing this latter task by turning the immune system against itself.
Richard Bucala, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and pathology, and collaborators discovered that the macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), a key immune system protein that is often expressed at high levels during malarial infection, suppresses red blood cell production. Mice lacking the MIF gene were better at regenerating red blood cells after malarial infection, thereby curbing the severity of anemia and boosting their chance for survival.
Bucala’s group identified subtle variants of the human MIF gene that lead to low or high MIF levels during Plasmodium infection. The research, published in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine, points the way to a genetic test that could identify individuals prone to severe malarial anemia.