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Sickle cell anemia may ward off malaria

Nov. 26, 2011 at 7:44 PM   |   Comments

HEIDELBERG, Germany, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- Sickle cell anemia, a disease that causes hemoglobin in red blood cells to mutate, seems to provide a natural defense against malaria, German researchers say.

Although it has long been known to scientists that the mutation caused by sickle cell anemia defends those afflicted against malaria, researchers recently performed the first study into how this works, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

"Some part of the human population has a mutation to their hemoglobin, which is the protein in the red blood cell that carries oxygen. Often, people of sub-Saharan African origins have two copies of this mutated gene, which leads to severe sickle cell disease," said the study's lead author, Marek Cyrklaff, an electron microscopist and molecular biologist at Heidelberg University in Germany.

"For people with one normal gene and one mutated gene, the Plasmodium [malaria] parasite makes itself very comfortable in the cells that they have. These patients also get the typical symptoms of malaria -- the recurring fever, anemia and so on -- but they do not die. This is an advantage from carrying the sickle cell gene -- which is why the mutation has survived in the population."

Cyrklaff said that although the study's findings are in the area of basic research, they "shed light on new and hitherto uncharted territory in the complex interactions between the malaria pathogen and its host."

"The logical step now is to identify the factors involved in this natural protection, and future studies will aim to develop inhibitors," Cyrklaff said.

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