Experiments with mice have helped researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany, and the University of Bristol, UK, find the culprit behind organ failure in malaria patients.
Neutrophils, the most abundant white blood cell, identify and destroy harmful micro-organisms that invade our body. They destroy cell and nuclear membranes and release structures called NETs (neutrophil extracellular traps).
Using a variant of the malaria parasite, which affects mice, scientists have shown that NETs could cause organ damage in malaria.
The team infected a group of genetically altered mice that could no longer form NETs and found that mice without NETs did not develop liver damage.
To show that the findings in the mouse model where relevant in malaria patients, the scientists examined blood samples from Gabon and Mozambique and verified that the number of NETs in the blood increased immensely in cases of severe malaria.
The microscope image shows malaria pathogens (green) in the intestine of an Anopheles mosquito.
A red blood cell binds to a small blood vessel in the liver. NET components mediate this binding during malaria, which can lead to organ damage.
“Animal research allows us to make predictions on human pathology. When this happens, we solve another piece in the jigsaw puzzle that explains what goes wrong in disease. That is the very reason why we need to pair animals and human research.”
Arturo Zychlinsky, Director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Infection Biology