Effect of malaria on red blood cells determined by researchers

Researchers have discovered how a protein affects red blood cells when malaria infects a human host, which could aid in determining new strategies to fight the disease.

The protein, called RESA, causes cell membranes to stiffen within 24 hours of infection. This rigidity impairs the ability of a red blood cell to travel through blood vessels, researchers at MIT, the Institut Pasteur and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology report.

The new discovery is the first time that scientists have determined RESA's specific role in modulating blood circulation.

"The new work combines the latest advances in genetics, microfabrication, nanomechanics and computational modeling by bringing together interdisciplinary and international teams," Subra Suresh, the senior author of the paper and a former dean of the MIT School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush professor of engineering, said.

The researchers determined that while the infected cells would still be able to slip into the spleen undetected, RESA's effects on membrane stiffness and deformability were enhanced by fever temperatures. At the increase temperatures, the cell membrane was stabilized so that it wouldn't disintegrate.

The study, which appears in the Aug. 30 online journal Scientific Reports, was coordinated by MIT's Ming Dao, a principal research scientist in the department of materials science and engineering, Monica Diez silva, a research scientist in DMSE, and YongKeun Park, an assistant professor of physics at KAIST.