MICROBIOLOGY: Pitting Erythrocytes

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Science  12 Dec 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5652, pp. 1863c
DOI: 10.1126/science.302.5652.1863c

When invaded and occupied by Plasmodium falciparum, normally pliable red blood cells become rigid and inelastic, properties that contribute to the occlusion of capillaries and the symptoms of malaria. Shelby et al. have developed a microfluidic apparatus for studying single infected red cells using molded silicone elastomer to mimic a capillary. The elastic modulus of the elastomer channels can be tuned to approximate that of blood vessel walls. Uninfected erythrocytes pass easily through synthetic capillaries 2 μm in diameter, but infected cells fail to enter an opening as large as 6 μm. Interestingly, uninfected red cells are able to traverse the blockade by squeezing past infected cells. The authors were able to reproduce a phenomenon that occurs in the spleen, in which the bulk of an infected erythrocyte enters a 2-μm tube, leaving the parasite jammed at the entrance; the membrane ruptures, leaving the parasite behind, and the parasite-free red cell emerges out the other end. In the spleen, such “pitted” erythrocytes can then be returned to circulation. This kind of device might offer a rapid screen for agents that inhibit or reverse the biomechanical effects of malaria parasites on red cells. — CA

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 100, 14618 (2003).

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