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Laser optical tweezers reveal how malaria parasites infect red blood cells

Laser optical tweezers reveal how malaria parasites infect red blood cells

Malaria is a life-threatening disease that is caused by a parasite that invades red blood cells. Scientists at the University of Cambridge used a laser optical tweezer technique to study the interaction between the parasite and red blood cells on a very small scale, which proved that the instrument can be used for such detailed research purposes. The results are published in Biophysical Journal.

There is not enough knowledge available about the infection process yet. The parasite which causes malaria (plasmodium falciparum), can leave an infected red blood cell and invade another in less than one minute. The researchers used the laser optical tweezer to pick up individual parasites which they delivered to a red blood cell. In this way the invasion process could be studied in a controlled manner. 

Furthermore, the scientists used the laser optical tweezer to study the attachment of the parasite to the red blood cell. The interaction itself turned out to be relatively weak. Due to this discovery, the attachment to the red blood cell can probably be blocked by a combination of drugs and antibodies. 

The results provide surprising new insights into the biology of malaria and create a path to the development of effective vaccines, according to author Julian Rayner of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The laser optical tweezer allows scientists to study the invasion of a parasite into a red blood cell on a very detailed scale, which was not possible before. 

According to Rayner, the attachment process could be studied step by step with the use of this new technique. These insights could lead to the development of effective vaccines or new inhibitors of the attachment process.

Source: Biophysical Journal

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