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Background: Exagerated immune activation has a key role in the pathogenesis of malaria. During blood-stage infection, Plasmodium falciparum can interact directly with host immune cells through infected red blood cells (PfiRBCs), or indirectly by the release of extracellular vesicles (EVs). Here, we compared the impact of PfiRBCs and P. falciparum small-sized EVs (PfsEVs, also known as exosomes) from a Kenyan clinical isolate (PfKE12) adapted to short-term laboratory culture conditions on host peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). Methods: PfsEVs were isolated from cell-free culture-conditioned media by ultracentrifugation while mature trophozoite PfiRBCs were purified by magnetic column separation. The PfsEVs and the PfiRBCs were co-cultured for 18 hours with PBMC. Cellular responses were quantified by cell surface expression of activation markers (CD25, CD69) and cytokine/chemokine levels in the supernatant. Results: Relative to negative control conditions, PfsEVs induced CD25 expression on CD4+, CD19+ and CD14+ cells, while PfiRBCs induced on CD19+ and CD14+ cells. Both PfsEVs and PfiRBCs induced CD69 on CD4+, CD8+ and CD19+ cells. In addition, PfiRBCs induced higher expression of CD69 on CD14+ cells. CD69 induced by PfiRBCs on CD4+ and CD19+ cells was significantly higher than that induced by PfsEVs. Secretion of MIP1α, MIP1β, GM-CSF, IL-6, IL-8, and TNFα were significantly induced by both PfsEVs and PfiRBCs whereas MCP-1, IL-10, IL-17α  were preferentially induced by PfsEVs and IP-10 and IFN-γ by PfiRBCs. Prior exposure to malaria (judged by antibodies to schizont extract) was associated with lower monocyte responses to PfsEVs. Conclusions: PfsEVs and PfiRBCs showed differential abilities to induce secretion of IL-17α  and IFN-γ, suggesting that the former are better at inducing Th17, whilst  the latter induce Th1 immune responses respectively. Prior exposure to malaria significantly reduces the ability of PfsEVs to activate monocytes, suggesting immune tolerance to PfsEVs may play a role in naturally acquired  anti-disease immunity.

Original publication




Journal article


Wellcome Open Research


F1000 Research Ltd

Publication Date





197 - 197