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Epidemiological and clinical studies have indicated that the thalassaemias may confer protection against malaria. The study reported here investigated this protective effect in vitro, using a new approach which controls for the potential effect of red cell size and age on the virulence of the parasite. A Percoll density gradient method was used to separate alpha- and beta-thalassaemic trait, haemoglobin H and normal red blood cells (RBC) into fractions of different density. Correlations between RBC density, age and size in fractions of all genotypes were established using red cell creatine as an index of cell age. The development of Plasmodium falciparum over 3 erythrocytic cycles (144 h) in whole blood as well as fractionated samples was monitored by slide microscopy and flow cytometry. A significantly reduced rate of parasite invasion and growth was demonstrated in RBC from all thalassaemic genotypes tested. Poor reinvasion rates were noted in the second and third cycles. Increased duration of culture and red cell age also had a greater negative impact on parasite growth in thalassaemic RBC. This poor growth rate was also associated with the arrest of parasite growth at the schizont stage (schizont maturation arrest) and the accumulation of abnormal, trophozoite/schizont stage parasites in the older thalassaemic RBC fractions. These findings suggest a defect in the number and viability of merozoites generated by parasites growing in thalassaemic RBC. Age related factors such as oxidant stress may play a key role in mediating this kind of protective mechanism and deserve further investigation.

Original publication




Journal article


Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg

Publication Date





138 - 143


Animals, Cell Size, Cells, Cultured, Creatine, Erythrocyte Aging, Erythrocytes, Female, Humans, Male, Multivariate Analysis, Plasmodium falciparum, alpha-Thalassemia, beta-Thalassemia