Gut bacteria protect against malaria transmission

Malaria is a deadly disease transmitted through mosquitoes and most widespread in tropical and subtropical regions around the world, especially in Africa. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 627,000 people died in 2012 and there were a total of 207 million cases worldwide. Through studying the microbiome, scientists last week published a major discovery in Cell that may lead to better vaccinations for malaria that could help prevent the disease from being transmitted.

Scientists in Portugal, collaborating with colleagues in the United States, Australia, and Mali, found that the parasite the causes malaria, Plasmodium, expresses the same sugar molecule that is seen in a type of Escherichia coli (E. coli).  This sugar molecule from the E. coli called alpha-gal (a-gal) results in the body’s immune system producing antibodies against this molecule and therefore also protecting against the malaria parasite. It is known that adults who are exposed to malaria are at lower risk of contracting the disease than children under the age of 5 and the researchers hypothesized that this was due to the children lacking this specific E. coli in their body and therefore unable to fight back against Plasmodium exposure.   

The scientists studied the gut bacteria of a group of individuals in Mali who had very high rates of malaria transmission. They found that those who had higher levels of anti-a-gal antibodies had lower risk of transmitting malaria and those with low levels of these antibodies had greater risk of transmitting the disease.  This showed that children are at greater risk for the disease because they do not produce enough anti-a-gal antibodies to prevent the parasite from infecting the body.

The scientists also found that the transmission of the parasite is blocked almost immediately following its introduction into the body through the skin. The antibodies against a-gal attach to the Plasmodium as soon as it is exposed to the body, and a part of the immune system called the component cascade is activated, killing the parasite before it can leave the skin and reach the blood stream.   

They found that by vaccinating mice against a kind of a-gal, the mice produced enough anti-a-gal antibodies that were highly efficient in protecting the mice from malaria transmission.  The scientists believe that it may now be possible to translate this work to humans and develop vaccines that would increase anti-a-gal antibodies and prevent malaria transmission. If successful, vaccinations could be given to children who are at high risk for the disease and could prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.  These findings also illustrate the protective aspects of the microbiome in regulating immunity, and the potential treasure-trove of molecules produced by the microbiome that could be used in therapeutics.

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