New insight on malaria parasite transmission could inform future drug development

Newly published clinical trial results suggest an established model for studying malaria could be used to evaluate interventions that block parasite transmission.
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A clinical trial involving an established model for studying malaria has yielded new insight on parasite transmission and could assist in future elimination efforts.

The study, conducted at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands and published in eLife, explored the use of the Controlled Human Malaria Infection model (CHMI) to induce the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum (P. falciparum) in healthy volunteers. This model is normally used to assess the safety and efficacy of novel antimalarial drugs and vaccines.

Malaria continues to be a significant public health burden. A major challenge to eliminating the disease is its highly efficient transmission by Anopheles mosquitoes. Transmission starts when a small proportion of asexual parasites in the blood of humans transform into male and female sexual-stage parasites called gametocytes. These organisms mature in the bone marrow and then appear in the blood, where they may be taken up by mosquitoes, rendering the insects infectious.

“Malaria elimination strategies require a thorough understanding of parasite transmission from human to mosquito, but a clinical model to investigate parasite dynamics and evaluate interventions that block their transmission is currently unavailable,” says first author Isaie Reuling from the Radboud University Medical Centre. “Here, we present a CHMI model to induce mature gametocytes following mosquito bite infection in healthy volunteers, allowing us to study the biology of these parasites in more detail.”

In the randomised trial, 16 healthy participants aged 18–35 years old were infected with P. falciparum by bites of infected Anopheles mosquitoes. They were then randomly allocated to four different treatment arms comprising low-dose piperaquine (PIP) or sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP).

The researchers first saw that gametocytes were present in all 16 volunteers. They studied the numbers of these parasites in each of the participants using molecular detectors called assays, and found that the numbers matched those of the preceding asexual parasites. “Further, we saw that male and female gametocytes appeared 8.5–12 days after the first detection of asexual parasites,” Reuling explains. “This timing suggests that a fraction of the first asexual parasites released into the bloodstream quickly starts to transform into male and female gametocytes.”

“The dynamics of the gametocytes’ maturation and sex ratio identified in our model reflect those found in naturally acquired infections, although their numbers are much lower than in many natural settings,” adds senior author Teun Bousema, PhD, Lecturer at the Radboud University Medical Centre and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK. “This suggests that our CHMI model can be used to evaluate the effect of drugs and vaccines on gametocytes for potential use in patients living in areas where malaria is common. The work also lays the foundation for fulfilling the critical unmet need to evaluate transmission-blocking interventions against P. falciparum, so that more effective treatments can be developed in the future.”

Media contacts

  1. Emily Packer
    eLife
    e.packer@elifesciences.org
    +441223855373

  2. Anne van Kessel
    Radboud University Medical Center
    anne.vankessel@radboudumc.nl
    +31621197389

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eLife aims to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science. We publish important research in all areas of the life and biomedical sciences, which is selected and evaluated by working scientists and made freely available online without delay. eLife also invests in innovation through open-source tool development to accelerate research communication and discovery. Our work is guided by the communities we serve. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Learn more at https://elifesciences.org.