News Release

Case Western Reserve researchers discover the key to malaria susceptibility in children

Prenatal exposure to Plasmodium falciparum results in parasite tolerance in some babies

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Case Western Reserve University

A team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have solved the mystery of why some children are more susceptible to malaria infection and anemia. These novel findings suggest that some children who are exposed to Plasmodium falciparum (P. falciparum) malaria before birth become tolerant to the malaria parasites, or their soluble products. This tolerance, which persists into childhood, reduces the ability of the immune system to attack and destroy parasites and increases the susceptibility of these children to develop a malaria infection. It also increases their risk for anemia. The study, published in this week's issue of the open access journal, PLoS Medicine, is led by Indu Malhotra, Ph.D., and Christopher King, M.D., Ph.D., professor of international health, medicine, and pathology, with their colleagues at the Center for Global Health and Diseases at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and their Kenyan colleagues at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and Division of Vector Borne Diseases.

"This is the first time it has been shown why some children are more susceptible to malaria and anemia than other children," says Dr. Indu Malhotra. "This study is timely given President Obama's Global Health Initiative to assist developing countries to control malaria, one of the 'big three' diseases."

The Case Western Reserve study, entitled, "Can Prenatal Malaria Exposure Produce an Immune Tolerant Phenotype?: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study in Kenya", investigated how prenatal malaria exposure affects anti-malaria immunity in young children and their susceptibility to subsequent malaria infections. Little is known about how immunity to malaria develops in infants, a process which researchers must understand in order to design effective vaccines for children. In particular, it is unclear how a mother's malaria infection affects a child's acquisition of anti-malaria immunity.

From a pool of 586 Kenyan newborn babies, the researchers identified those children who had been exposed to P. falciparum malaria in utero. The researchers looked for malaria-specific immune responses in T cells in the newborn babies' cord blood by measuring the production of cytokines, molecules that either activate or inhibit the immune system. Finally, they examined the infants biannually for three years to monitor the children's immune responses, susceptibility to malaria infection and risk for anemia..

"These findings could have important implications for the design of malaria vaccines for use in areas where children are often exposed to malaria before birth and for the design of strategies for the prevention of malaria during pregnancy," says Dr. Christopher King.

The babies were classified into three groups: "sensitized" – those babies whose cord blood cells produce activating cytokines in response to the malaria antigens; "exposed, not-sensitized'' – babies whose bodies did not produce activating cytokines but made an inhibitory cytokine; and "not-exposed''– babies born to mothers with no P. falciparum malaria infection at delivery.

In their first three years of life, the "exposed, not-sensitized" group had a 60 percent greater risk of malaria infection than the "not-exposed" group and a slightly higher risk of malaria infection than the "sensitized" group. They also had lower hemoglobulin levels, a sign of anemia, than the other babies. The T cells of "exposed, not-sensitized" children were less likely to make activating cytokines in response to malaria antigens.

In a PLoS Medicine Perspective article on this study, editorial board member, Lars Hviid, states that the research by Dr. King and colleagues "adds significantly to our understanding of prenatal exposure to P. falciparum antigens" and has "obvious clinical importance."


This PLoS Medicine study is freely available for anyone to read, and can be accessed via the following link:

About Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Founded in 1843, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine is the largest medical research institution in Ohio and is among the nation's top medical schools for research funding from the National Institutes of Health. The School of Medicine is recognized throughout the international medical community for outstanding achievements in teaching. The School's innovative and pioneering Western Reserve2 curriculum interweaves four themes--research and scholarship, clinical mastery, leadership, and civic professionalism--to prepare students for the practice of evidence-based medicine in the rapidly changing health care environment of the 21st century. Eleven Nobel Laureates have been affiliated with the school.

Annually, the School of Medicine trains more than 770 M.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students and ranks in the top 25 among U.S. research-oriented medical schools as designated by U.S. News &World Report "Guide to Graduate Education."

The School of Medicine's primary affiliate is University Hospitals Case Medical Center and is additionally affiliated with MetroHealth Medical Center, the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Cleveland Clinic, with which it established the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University in 2002.

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