Plasmodium falciparum causes the most severe form of malaria in humans and invades erythrocytes using multiple ligand-receptor interactions. Two important protein families involved in erythrocyte binding are the erythrocyte binding-like (EBL) and the reticulocyte binding-like (RBL or P. falciparum Rh [PfRh]) proteins.
We constructed P. falciparum lines lacking expression of EBL proteins by creating single and double knockouts of the corresponding genes for eba-175, eba-181, and eba-140 and show that the EBL and PfRh proteins function cooperatively, consistent with them playing a similar role in merozoite invasion.
We provide evidence that PfRh and EBL proteins functionally interact, as loss of function of EBA-181 ablates the ability of PfRh2a/b protein antibodies to inhibit merozoite invasion. Additionally, loss of function of some ebl genes results in selection for increased transcription of the PfRh family. This provides a rational basis for considering PfRh and EBL proteins for use as a combination vaccine against P. falciparum.
We immunized rabbits with combinations of PfRh and EBL proteins to test the ability of antibodies to block merozoite invasion in growth inhibition assays. A combination of EBA-175, PfRh2a/b, and PfRh4 recombinant proteins induced antibodies that potently blocked merozoite invasion.
This validates the use of a combination of these ligands as a potential vaccine that would have broad activity against P. falciparum.