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Gene Silencing and Antigenic Variation in Malaria Parasites
Malaria remains one of the most important infectious diseases in the world today, infecting 300 to 500 million people yearly and resulting in 1 to 2 million deaths, primarily of young African children. The most severe form of this disease is caused by infection with the mosquito borne protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum. This parasite lives by invading and multiplying within the red blood cells of its host, causing disease through anemia resulting from red cell destruction, and also through modifications made to the surface of infected red cells. These modifications make infected cells cytoadherent or “sticky”, allowing them to adhere to the walls of blood vessels, leading to obstruction of blood flow and such clinical manifestations as the often fatal syndrome of cerebral malaria. In addition, parasites are capable of undergoing antigenic variation, a process of continually changing the identity of proteins on the surface of infected cells and thus avoiding the immune response mounted by the host. This process promotes a long term, persistent infection that is difficult to clear.