Model uncovers how malaria parasite causes red blood cell changes

Monday, April 27, 2015

A model of a malaria-infected red blood cell may lead to better ways to treat malaria, according to a team of engineers and molecular biologists who investigated how this parasite infection causes the red blood cells to stiffen.

Normal red blood cells are about 8 microns in size, but can circulate in the microvascular system with a diameter of 1 to 2 microns because they are flexible, deformable and durable.  Cells infected with the Plasmodium falciparum parasite, the most virulent form of malaria parasite, become stiff and sticky and become lodged in small blood vessels while the parasite is developing and so avoid the filtering action of the spleen.

"The malaria community knew about the fact that red blood cells get stiff and sticky when they are infected, " said Sulin Zhang, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics, Penn State.  "They were also fairly certain why it becomes so sticky, but they are not certain why it becomes so stiff.  You can't really treat the disease if you don't understand the mechanism."