Left untreated, malaria can progress from being mild to severe -- and potentially fatal -- in 24 hours.
So researchers at the University of British Columbia developed a method to quickly and sensitively assess the progression of the mosquito-borne infectious disease, which remains a leading killer in low-income countries.
One way malaria wreaks havoc on the body is by causing excessive amounts of toxic heme, the non-protein component of hemoglobin, to accumulate in the bloodstream.
Among other things, this free heme induces oxidative stress in red blood cells (RBCs), leading to their rigidification, destruction and subsequent removal from circulation -- a condition known as hemolytic anemia.
In their study, which appeared in Integrative Biology, the UBC investigators found that RBCs become increasingly rigid in direct correlation with the concentration of oxidized heme, or hemin, in the blood.
Since hemin is difficult to measure directly -- it tends to insert itself into cell membranes -- monitoring changes in RBC deformability can therefore serve as a reliable alternative marker of hemin-induced oxidative stress and malaria progression.