A University of South Florida College of Public Health professor and his team of researchers have become the first to uncover part of the mysterious process by which malaria-related parasites spread at explosive and deadly rates inside humans and other animals.
As drug-resistant malaria threatens to become a major public health crisis, the findings could potentially lead to a powerful new treatment for malaria-caused illnesses that kill more than 600,000 people a year.
In a study published online March 3 in the high-impact journal PLOS Biology, the USF researchers and their colleagues at the University of Georgia discovered how these ancient parasites manage to replicate their chromosomes up to thousands of times before spinning off into daughter cells with perfect similitude — all the while avoiding cell death.
“How these parasites preserve fidelity in this seemingly chaotic process is one of the great mysteries of this pathogen family,” said USF Health’s Michael White, PhD, a professor in the Department of Global Health who partnered on the study with fellow USF researcher Elena Suvorova, PhD, in the USF Departments of Molecular Medicine & Global Health and the Florida Center for Drug Discovery and Innovation, as well as with two researchers from the University of Georgia.
In studying the malaria-relative Toxoplasma gondii, the team found an explanation for that puzzle.
To understand it, consider that malaria-related parasites are professional multipliers, unlike plant and animal species and single-cell organisms like yeast — where chromosomes get one shot at replication or else the cell dies or turns into cancer, Dr. White explained.
With malaria-related parasites, once transmitted into an animal or human, they can hide out in a single cell in many different tissues replicating silently tens, hundreds or even thousands of times before the host’s immune system can detect that they are there.
Then with the stealth of a Trojan horse, they burst forth as “daughter cells,” which are unleashed in massive quantities in waves, like a small army into the host’s system — quickly overwhelming a patient’s immune response, Dr. White explained.