Liver cells used to help treat malaria in MIT study

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers said on Thursday in the journal Stem Cell Reports that they have found a way to use human liver cells to help treat malaria.

The human liver cells are derived from induced pluripotent stem cells and screen potential antimalarial drugs and vaccines for their ability to treat the liver stage of a malaria infection, which causes more than 500,000 deaths globally each year.

"Our platform can be used for testing candidate drugs that act against the parasite in the early liver stages, before it causes disease in the blood and spreads back to the mosquito vector," Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia -- the study's senior author, director of MIT's Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies and a biomedical engineer at Brigham and Women's Hospital -- said. "This is especially important given the increasing occurrence of drug-resistant strains of malaria in the field."

Malaria parasites tend to persist in the liver and can cause relapses by re-entering the bloodstream weeks or even years later. Drugs or vaccines that target the liver stage of the disease may have the ability to inhibit the initial round of infection, thereby eradicating the parasite.

Current methods for modeling liver-stage malaria in a lab are limited by the small available pool of liver cells from human donors, in addition to the lack of genetic diversity of the donor cells. To overcome these obstacles, Bhatia and her colleagues reprogrammed human skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which are embryonic-like stem cells that are capable of turning into other specific cell types relevant for studying a particular disease.

The researchers infected iPSC-derived liver cells with various malaria parasites to model liver-stage malaria in the lab, and this made the cells sensitive to the antimalarial drug primaquine.

"Moving forward, we hope to adapt the iPSC-derived liver cells to scalable, high-throughput culture formats to support fast, efficient antimalarial drug screens," Shengyong Ng, lead study author and a postdoctoral researcher in Bhatia's lab, said. "The use of iPSC-derived liver cells to model liver-stage malaria in a dish opens the door to study the influence of host genetics on antimalarial drug efficacy and lays the foundation for their use in antimalarial drug discovery."