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Malaria parasites use camouflage to trick immune defences of pregnant women
Date:7/11/2011

Researchers from Rigshospitalet Copenhagen University Hospital and the University of Copenhagen have discovered why malaria parasites are able to hide from the immune defences of expectant mothers, allowing the parasite to attack the placenta. The discovery is an important part of the efforts researchers are making to understand this frequently fatal disease and to develop a vaccine.

Staff member at CMP. Photo: Lars Hviid"We have found one likely explanation for the length of time it takes for the expectant mother's immune defences to discover the infection in the placenta," says Lea Barfod, MSc, who is working with Professor Lars Hviid at the Centre for Medical Parasitology, University of Copenhagen.

"The parasites are able to assume a camouflage that prevents their recognition by the immune system antibodies which would otherwise combat them. So although the immune system has all the weapons it needs to fight the infection of the placenta, these weapons are ineffectual simply because the enemy is hard to spot. Ironically the camouflage also consists of antibodies, but of a type that does not help to fight infection."

The malaria parasite at war with the immune system

One human being in twelve is infected with malaria. That means 500 million people are carrying the tiny parasite, and it kills a million of them a year. The disease costs so many lives because the parasite constantly outmanoeuvres the human immune system. It starts by hiding in the red blood cells. The immune system does not bother with these as the spleen usually filters defective blood cells.

To avoid this filter, the parasite ejects a protein hook which attaches to the inner wall of the blood vessel, and even if the immune system antibodies destroy one such hook, the parasite has more than sixty in its arsenal. One of them has evolved specially to attach to the placenta. While the war is being waged the parasite propagates and infects more
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Contact: Professor Lars Hviid
lhviid@sund.ku.dk
452-274-7426
University of Copenhagen
Source:Eurekalert

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