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BMC Med. 2019 Jan 30;17(1):22. doi: 10.1186/s12916-019-1255-3.

Antibody responses to merozoite antigens after natural Plasmodium falciparum infection: kinetics and longevity in absence of re-exposure.

Author information

Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine Solna, Karolinska Institutet, Karolinska University Hospital, 171 76, Stockholm, Sweden.
Department of Parasites and Insect Vectors, Institut Pasteur, 25-28 Rue du Dr Roux, 75015, Paris, France.
Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine Solna, Karolinska Institutet, Karolinska University Hospital, 171 76, Stockholm, Sweden.
Department of Infectious Diseases, Karolinska University Hospital, 171 76, Stockholm, Sweden.
Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX3 7DQ, UK.
Kenya Medical Research Institute - Wellcome Trust Research Program, Centre for Geographic Medicine Research-Coast, PO Box 230-80108, Kilifi, Kenya.
Centre for Infectious Diseases, Parasitology, Heidelberg University Hospital, Im Neuenheimer Feld 324, 69120, Heidelberg, Germany.



Antibodies against merozoite antigens are key components of malaria immunity. The naturally acquired antibody response to these antigens is generally considered short-lived; however, the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Prospective studies of travellers with different levels of prior exposure, returning to malaria-free countries with Plasmodium infection, offer a unique opportunity to investigate the kinetics and composition of the antibody response after natural infection.


Adults diagnosed with P. falciparum malaria in Stockholm, Sweden (20 likely malaria naïve and 41 with repeated previous exposure during residency in sub-Saharan Africa) were sampled at diagnosis and 10 days and 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after treatment. Total and subclass-specific IgG responses to P. falciparum merozoite antigens (AMA-1, MSP-119, MSP-2, MSP-3, and RH5) and tetanus toxoid were measured by multiplex bead-based immunoassays and ELISA. Mathematical modelling was used to estimate the exposure-dependent longevity of antibodies and antibody-secreting cells (ASCs).


A majority of individuals mounted detectable antibody responses towards P. falciparum merozoite antigens at diagnosis; however, the magnitude and breadth were greater in individuals with prior exposure. In both exposure groups, antibody levels increased rapidly for 2 weeks and decayed thereafter. Previously exposed individuals maintained two- to ninefold greater antibody levels throughout the 1-year follow-up. The half-lives of malaria-specific long-lived ASCs, responsible for maintaining circulating antibodies, ranged from 1.8 to 3.7 years for merozoite antigens and were considerably short compared to tetanus-specific ASCs. Primary infected individuals did acquire a long-lived component of the antibody response; however, the total proportion of long-lived ASCs generated in response to infection was estimated not to exceed 10%. In contrast, previously exposed individuals maintained substantially larger numbers of long-lived ASCs (10-56% of total ASCs).


The short-lived nature of the naturally acquired antibody response, to all tested merozoite antigens, following primary malaria infection can be attributed to a combination of a poor acquisition and short half-life of long-lived ASCs. Greater longevity is acquired with repeated infections and can be explained by the maintenance of larger numbers of long-lived ASCs. These insights advance our understanding of naturally acquired malaria immunity and will guide strategies for further development of both vaccines and serological tools to monitor exposure.


Antibody; Half-life; IgG; Longevity; Longitudinal; Malaria; Plasmodium falciparum; Serology; Subclass; Traveller

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