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J Mol Med (Berl). 2008 Oct;86(10):1097-111. doi: 10.1007/s00109-008-0368-5. Epub 2008 Jul 19.

A central role for free heme in the pathogenesis of severe malaria: the missing link?

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Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Oeiras, Portugal.


Malaria, the disease caused by Plasmodium infection, is endemic to poverty in so-called underdeveloped countries. Plasmodium falciparum, the main infectious Plasmodium species in sub-Saharan countries, can trigger the development of severe malaria, including cerebral malaria, a neurological syndrome that claims the lives of more than one million children (<5 years old) per year. Attempts to eradicate Plasmodium infection, and in particular its lethal outcomes, have so far been unsuccessful. Using well-established rodent models of malaria infection, we found that survival of a Plasmodium-infected host is strictly dependent on the host's ability to up-regulate the expression of heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1 encoded by the gene Hmox1). HO-1 is a stress-responsive enzyme that catabolizes free heme into biliverdin, via a reaction that releases Fe and generates the gas carbon monoxide (CO). Generation of CO through heme catabolism by HO-1 prevents the onset of cerebral malaria. The protective effect of CO is mediated via its binding to cell-free hemoglobin (Hb) released from infected red blood cells during the blood stage of Plasmodium infection. Binding of CO to cell-free Hb prevents heme release and thus generation of free heme, which we found to play a central role in the pathogenesis of cerebral malaria. We will address hereby how defense mechanisms that prevent the deleterious effects of free heme, including the expression of HO-1, impact on the pathologic outcome of Plasmodium infection and how these may be used therapeutically to suppress its lethal outcomes.

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