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Crime scene chemical used to kill malaria in blood cells

Luminol was combined with an amino acid and a common anti-malaria drug to kill the parasite.

By Stephen Feller
Crime scene chemical used to kill malaria in blood cells
Researchers combined a chemical, an amino acid, and a common malaria drug to trick cells into killing the malaria parasite. Photo by toeytoey/Shutterstock

ST. LOUIS, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- A chemical used by police to detect blood at crime scenes was used by researchers to kill malaria parasites after they infected human red blood cells.

Luminol, which glows blue when it comes in contact with hemoglobin in red blood cells, lets police see trace amounts of blood when sprayed on surfaces thought to have been bled on during crimes. In the lab study, researchers combined it with an amino acid and the common malaria drug artemisinin, causing a series of events that killed the parasites after they'd invaded cells.

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"The light that luminol emits is enhanced by the antimalarial drug artemisinin," said Dr. Daniel Goldberg, a professor of medicine and molecular microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis, in a press release. "We think these agents could be combined to form an innovative treatment for malaria."

Malaria parasites survive on heme, the deep red, nonprotein part of hemoglobin that carries oxygen. To get it, the parasite invades the cells by creating an opening to slip through.

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Working with malaria-infected blood cells in a lab solution, researchers added exogenous 5-aminolevulinic acid, an amino acid that is an ingredient in heme, which entered the cells through the channel the parasite had created. This led to a buildup of the molecule protoporphyrin IX in the cells.

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Protoporphyrin IX emits free radicals, compounds that are toxic to the malaria parasite when exposed to light. The parasites in the cells died when light from luminol reacting to the oxygen in hemoglobin hit the free radicals.

Artemisinin is recommended by the World Health Organization to only be used in combination with other drugs because the parasite has become resistant to it. The three-drug combination is thought by the researchers to be an improvement over current malaria treatment strategies and plan to test it in studies with animals.

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"All of these agents -- the amino acid, the luminol and artemisinin -- have been cleared for use in humans individually, so we are optimistic that they won't present any safety problems together," said Goldberg.

The study is published in eLife.

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