Sporozoites of the parasite, Plasmodium berghei, infect a human host by traveling through the liver, wounding several cells and then settling down in one of them.
Dr Maria Mota and colleagues discovered that the wounded cells produce a protein called hepatocyte growth factor (HGF). This is normally involved in liver development and regeneration.
When the secreted HGF activates receptors on a neighboring cell, it triggers a pathway that rearranges the internal skeleton of that cell. This makes the cell more susceptible to Plasmodium infection.
|Secreted HGF makes cells more susceptible to Plasmodium infection.|
Dr Mota's findings may explain why malaria can be more severe in hepatitis B carriers, who have more HGF than normal.
The researchers also found that blocking the HGF receptors prevented Plasmodium from infecting the liver.
They suggest that interfering with the HGF pathway might be the key to developing new malaria treatments.