Protein in platelets may be key to battling malaria

Researchers in Australia published a paper on Friday that uncovers two molecules in human platelets that team up to fight against the malaria parasite.

Brendan McMorran, an associate professor from Macquarie University, and his colleagues found that platelet factor four and the Duffy antigen receptor in platelets work in tandem to kill Plasmodium falciparum. The study showed that PF4 protects red blood cells from P. falciparum, but it can only do this when the Duffy antigen receptor is present, ABC Australia reports.

"The Duffy antigen is a docking site that appears to allow PF4 to get to the parasite," McMorran said, according to ABC Australia. "We don't know how PF4 kills the parasite, but it kills them quite effectively. PF4 is known to interfere with membrane functions in other microbes like bacteria, so we think a similar mechanism may work with the malaria parasite."

The finding provides a new explanation as to why malaria is a major problem in Africa. The Duffy antigen receptor is absent in most African populations. McMorran hypothesized that at some point being Duffy-negative was a survival advantage. Now it may be another issue in the fight against malaria.

"What (the study) does is tells us more about how the body fights malaria and highlights another problem facing us in trying to eradicate malaria," McMorran said, according to ABC Australia.

P. falciparum causes most of the estimated 655,000 deaths from malaria annually, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, ABC Australia reports.