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PLoS One. 2009 Dec 24;4(12):e8446. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008446.

Hemozoin (malarial pigment) directly promotes apoptosis of erythroid precursors.

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Nuffield Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, United Kingdom.


Severe malarial anemia is the most common syndrome of severe malaria in endemic areas. The pathophysiology of chronic malaria is characterised by a striking degree of abnormal development of erythroid precursors (dyserythropoiesis) and an inadequate erythropoietic response in spite of elevated levels of erythropoietin. The cause of dyserythropoiesis is unclear although it has been suggested that bone-marrow macrophages release cytokines, chemokines or lipo-peroxides after exposure to hemozoin, a crystalloid form of undigested heme moieties from malarial infected erythrocytes, and so inhibit erythropoiesis. However, we have previously shown that hemozoin may directly inhibit erythroid development in vitro and the levels of hemozoin in plasma from patients with malarial anemia and hemozoin within the bone marrow was associated with reduced reticulocyte response. We hypothesized that macrophages may reduce, not enhance, the inhibitory effect of hemozoin on erythropoiesis. In an in vitro model of erythropoiesis, we now show that inhibition of erythroid cell development by hemozoin isolated from P. falciparum is characterised by delayed expression of the erythroid markers and increased apoptosis of progenitor cells. Crucially, macrophages appear to protect erythroid cells from hemozoin, consistent with a direct contribution of hemozoin to the depression of reticulocyte output from the bone marrow in children with malarial anemia. Moreover, hemozoin isolated from P. falciparum in vitro inhibits erythroid development independently of inflammatory mediators by inducing apoptotic pathways that not only involve activation of caspase 8 and cleavage of caspase 3 but also loss of mitochondrial potential. Taken together these data are consistent with a direct effect of hemozoin in inducing apoptosis in developing erythroid cells in malarial anemia. Accumulation of hemozoin in the bone marrow could therefore result in inadequate reticulocytosis in children that have adequate levels of circulating erythropoietin.

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