A feature of malaria in pregnancy is accumulation of P. falciparum-infected erythrocytes (IEs) in the placenta, which is associated with adverse outcomes for mothers and infants.
Infection appears to involve parasite adhesion to molecules such as chondroitin sulfate A, hyaluronic acid, and immunoglobulins.
In vitro, adhesion is predominantly a property of mature asexual forms of IEs; however, adhesion of immature or ring forms has recently been reported. We have assessed the parasitemia and developmental stages of IEs in the placenta by examination of placental blood and histological sections with comparison to parasites in the peripheral blood from the same individuals.
Approximately 90% of IEs in the placenta were mature forms. Compared to peripheral blood, the placental parasitemia was 10-fold higher and the density of mature IEs was over 200-fold higher.
By contrast, the average peripheral and placental ring-stage parasitemias were not significantly different. In 2 of 14 cases, the density of ring forms was higher in placental than in peripheral blood.
These findings demonstrate prominent selective accumulation of mature asexual-stage IEs but infrequent accumulation of ring stages in the placental blood spaces, consistent with an important role for mature-stage IE adhesion.