Researchers have demonstrated novel parasite behaviour which offers a potential new target for malaria diagnosis and intervention.
Malaria, a bloodborne disease caused by single cell parasites, remains a major global public health issue with millions of cases, and nearly half a million deaths every year.
The new discovery in the parasite's biology is revealed across a set of three studies led by the University of Glasgow's Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology.
The researchers have discovered that malaria parasites can occupy sites outside the bloodstream, specifically in the bone marrow and spleen where red blood cells are formed. The studies show in animal models and human infection that this is the major niche for the development of malaria transmission stages and a significant reservoir for the parasite's replicative stages.
The researchers demonstrate, for the first time, the movement of blood stage parasite forms and their migration across the vascular barrier to other parts of the body. Further, the work demonstrates that localisation in the bone marrow and spleen allows the parasite not only to build a reservoir of infection but also to gain additional protection from certain antimalarial drugs including the current frontline drug artemisinin.
The findings from these new studies show why malaria parasites invading the bone marrow and spleen, where red blood cells are formed, could be crucial to targeting the disease.
Professor Andy Waters, Director of the Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology, said: "These papers together represent a step forward in our understanding of the behaviour of the malaria parasite. It is possible that bone marrow serves as the reservoir of infection avoiding the immune system and preferentially producing and releasing gametocytes so that when mosquitoes appear the disease can be retransmitted.'