The malaria parasite Plasmodium needs iron to survive. When it invades the animal host’s red blood cells the parasite hijacks iron from the red pigment (haemoglobin) within. In attempts to thwart the invasion, infected animals stockpile iron away from the parasite in their organs. But iron is toxic to cells, and iron overload causes tissue damage. Scientists keen to uncover why some people tolerate malaria disease, while many more die, are studying mice infected with Plasmodium. They’ve recently tracked down a key element – an iron detoxifying protein called Ferritin H chain (labelled red in infected mouse liver, right). Mice that tolerate malaria produce the protein when infected (uninfected liver shown on left; cells appear green and a large vein, black). Without the protein, infected mice suffer iron overload, develop organ failure and die. Scientists are now investigating whether humans use a similar strategy to protect themselves against this deadly disease.
Written by Caroline Cross
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