WACCBIP researchers discover new simpler technique for monitoring mysterious behaviour of malaria parasites

Researchers at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) have discovered a simple and cheap technique for culturing the malaria parasite in the lab that has revealed new its traits of the parasite .

“We simply place cell cultures in a shaker and leave them shaking for an extended period,” says Prince Nyarko, one of the WACCBIP researchers. “Ordinarily, we keep cell cultures in a static incubator at body temperature; however, generally, when we want to grow the parasites more quickly, we allow the cultures to shake. In some cultures that were left shaking, we observed that the parasites changed their invasion mechanisms.”

The technique was discovered while observing changes in the invasion mechanism of the Dd2 strain of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, after it was left to shake for several weeks during culturing. Extending the method to other strains as well, researchers found that, unlike the parasites cultured in static conditions, those that were cultured with gentle shaking, after two weeks, spontaneously and progressively switched their invasion mechanisms.

The most commonly used technique requires that scientists culture—grow the parasite in a lab setting—using enzyme-treated red blood cells in static incubators.

“We usually use neuraminidase-treated cells to select for switched parasites, but now we can simply shake them for five to six weeks. So, it’s an easier and cheaper way of getting the parasites to switch for the purposes of laboratory studies,” says Director of WACCBIP, Prof. Gordon Awandare, who discovered the technique.

Applying this technique, scientists can now scrutinize data that suggest that, aside from immune system pressures, other possible conditions, such as blood flow, may contribute to the behaviour of the parasite within the human body. The technique also has important implications for research into malaria.

“In terms of the impact on the broader malaria research field, I think this is one more mystery that we have discovered about the parasite, and the more we know about the parasite the better our chances of finding ways to get around its tricks,” says Prof. Awandare. “We have added to our knowledge of the parasite by discovering one more trick it uses, which is always an important thing to know.”

Contributed by WACCBIP communications