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Artificial red blood cells enable research into malaria invasion

BEL-A derived reticulocytes support invasion and complete intracellular development of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum

Press release issued: 29 August 2019

Researchers at the University of Bristol and Imperial College London have established a new model system that uses red blood cells grown in the laboratory to study how malaria parasites invade red blood cells.

The work, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research and NHS Blood and Transplant and is published in Nature Communications, provides a powerful new research tool for the identification of key host proteins and their domains that are involved in parasite infection.  It will facilitate attempts to understand and disrupt the mechanism of red blood cell invasion by malaria parasites.

The scientists used a cell line recently developed in Bristol which can produce unlimited numbers of immature ‘progenitor cells’ that can be pushed to produce new red blood cells (reticulocytes) in the laboratory. Using these cells, they were able to show that red blood cells generated using this technique can support both invasion by and intracellular development of Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite that is responsible for around 200 million new infections and half a million deaths per year worldwide.

By using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genome of the immature cells, the team were also able to remove a protein called basigin that is important for invasion and normally present on the surface of red blood cells and show that the reticulocytes generated from this edited line were completely resistant to invasion. Reintroducing the basigin gene into the edited cells restored invasion to normal levels. This important work shows that these cells can be used to remove and replace different red blood cell proteins and assess how their absence or alteration affects the ability of the parasite to successfully invade.

Dr Tim Satchwell, lead author of the study at the University of Bristol said: “The ability to alter protein expression in the red blood cell and study the effect that these changes have on parasite invasion or development is hugely exciting. This system has opened up many new potential avenues of research that should allow us to better understand the mechanism by which the malaria parasite is able to successfully invade the red blood cell, and the specific roles that host cell proteins play in this process.”

Dr Ashley Toye – one of the senior authors on the study and Director of the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit said: “This work has shown that it is now possible to manipulate the red blood cell surface to better understand the process of malaria invasion. It also shows that our reticulocytes produced from the cell line are recognised by the parasite just the same as reticulocytes produced in the body. This is important as it provides further evidence that the cells are manufactured correctly in the laboratory.”

Dr Nick Watkins, Assistant Director - Research and Development at NHS Blood and Transplant, said: “This demonstration of reticulocytes derived from cell lines supporting malaria invasion will provide an important new tool to better understand how the malaria parasite invades red blood cells. Ultimately, we hope that this work will lead to the development of new therapeutic strategies for malaria.”

Paper: Genetic manipulation of cell line derived reticulocytes enables dissection of host malaria invasion requirementsSatchwell TJ, Wright KE, Haydn-Smith KL, Terán FS-R, Moura PL, Hawksworth J, Frayne J, Toye AM, Baum J

Further information

The University of Bristol NIHR Blood & Transport Research Unit NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Units (BTRU) are research partnerships between universities and NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT).  The NIHR BTRU in Red Blood Cell Products is part of and funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) and is a partnership between the University of Bristol and NHSBT, in collaboration with the University of Warwick, the University of Bath and the University of the West of England. The Director of the BTRU is Dr Ashley Toye. NHSBT is jointly funding the clinical trial with NIHR and also funds some of the parallel research themes being carried out by this Unit.

Our research Red blood cells grown from adult stem cells have the potential to improve the health of people who need regular transfusions throughout their life (e.g. thalassemia, sickle cell and certain cancers). As this is freshly grown blood, it could reduce the frequency of transfusion, reduce the treatment burden for patients and the unwanted side effects of frequent transfusions. To determine whether these treatments can fulfil their potential we will conduct a clinical trial in volunteers to assess the performance of laboratory grown cells compared to donated red blood cells.

We are also conducting a research programme to produce larger volumes of red blood cells.

NHS Blood and Transplant is a joint England and Wales Special Health Authority. We are responsible for ensuring a safe and efficient supply of blood and associated services to the NHS in England. We are also the organ donation organisation for the UK and are responsible for matching and allocating donated organs.

NHS Blood and Transplant has a Research and Development strategy which includes funding and carrying out world leading research, clinical trials and studies.

NHS Blood and Transplant needs to collect 1.4 million units of blood each year to meet the needs of patients across England. Blood donors can search for sessions, book appointments, change/cancel their appointments and change their contact details in real time at

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

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