Scientists discover how sickle cell anemia protects against malaria

Scientists say they have come to understand how the mutation that causes sickle cell anemia also protects against the parasitic infection malaria.

The sickle cell trait is caused by a mutation that twists blood cells into crescents that are unable to effectively carry oxygen. It can cause extreme pain and sometimes lead to death. Inheriting the trait from one parent does not usually cause health problems and makes it unlikely the carrier will die if infected by malaria, according to the New York Times.

The trait is common in West Africa, where malaria is endemic. It is also quite common in those of West African descent, including one in 12 African Americans.

A new study by scientists from Germany and Burkina Faso, published in the journal Science, has potentially discovered how sickle cell carriers are protected from the often deadly disease.

When malaria parasites enter red blood cells, they begin to twist a protein called actin. The reshaping of actin creates a structure that the parasites use to allow them to mount a protein-shuffling structure called Maurer’s cleft.

The cleft is used to push proteins through the cell membrane that in turn adhere to the walls of capillaries in the brain and other organs. The sticky proteins prevent the cells from being carried through the blood stream to the spleen, which has the ability to identify and destroy them.

Pictures from an electron microscope showed that frozen red blood cells with the sickle cell trait are able to resist the actin mining process, meaning that if infected they can travel to the spleen, where they can be eliminated along with the parasite.