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Clin Microbiol Rev. 2000 Jul;13(3):439-50.

Molecular aspects of severe malaria.

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  • 1Microbiology and Tumour Biology Centre, Karolinska Institutet, and Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, S-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden.


Human infections with Plasmodium falciparum may result in severe forms of malaria. The widespread and rapid development of drug resistance in P. falciparum and the resistance of the disease-transmitting mosquitoes to insecticides make it urgent to understand the molecular background of the pathogenesis of malaria to enable the development of novel approaches to combat the disease. This review focuses on the molecular mechanisms of severe malaria caused by the P. falciparum parasite. The nature of severe malaria and the deleterious effects of parasite-derived toxins and host-induced cytokines are introduced. Sequestration, brought about by cytoadherence and rosetting, is linked to severe malaria and is mediated by multiple receptors on the endothelium and red blood cells. P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1) is the ligand responsible for a majority of binding interactions, and the multiply adhesive features of this sticky molecule are presented. Antigenic variation is also a major feature of PfEMP1 and of the surface of the P. falciparum-infected erythrocyte. Possible mechanisms of P. falciparum antigenic variation in asexual stages are further discussed. We conclude this review with a perspective and suggestions of important aspects for future investigations.

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