The bacterial protein CNF1 as a new strategy against Plasmodium falciparum cytoadherence

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Plasmodium falciparum severe malaria causes more than 400,000 deaths every year. One feature of P. falciparum-parasitized erythrocytes (pRBC) leading to cerebral malaria (CM), the most dangerous form of severe malaria, is cytoadherence to endothelium and blockage of the brain microvasculature. Preventing ligand-receptor interactions involved in this process could inhibit pRBC sequestration and insurgence of severe disease whilst reversing existing cytoadherence could be a saving life adjunct therapy. Increasing evidence indicate the endothelial Rho signaling as a crucial player in malaria parasite cytoadherence. Therefore, we have used the cytotoxic necrotizing factor 1 (CNF1), an Escherichia coli protein able to modulate the activity of Cdc42, Rac, and Rho, three subfamilies of the Rho GTPases family, to study interactions between infected erythrocytes and cerebral endothelium in co-culture models. The main results are that CNF1 not only prevents cytoadherence but, more importantly, induces the detachment of pRBCs from endothelia monolayers. We first observed that CNF1 does affect neither parasite growth, nor the morphology and concentration of knobs that characterize the parasitized erythrocyte surface, as viewed by scanning electron microscopy. On the other hand, flow cytometry experiments show that cytoadherence reversion induced by CNF1 occurs in parallel with a decreased ICAM-1 receptor expression on the cell surface, suggesting the involvement of a toxin-promoted endocytic activity in such a response. Furthermore, since the endothelial barrier functionality is compromised by P. falciparum, we conducted a permeability assay on endothelial cells, revealing the CNF1 capacity to restore the brain endothelial barrier integrity. Then, using pull-down assays and inhibitory studies, we demonstrated, for the first time, that CNF1 is able not only to prevent but also to cause the parasite detachment by simultaneously activating Rho, Rac and Cdc42 in endothelial cells. All in all our findings indicate that CNF1 may represent a potential novel therapeutic strategy for preventing neurological complications of CM.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e0213529
JournalPLoS One
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Bacterial Toxins/chemistry
  • Cell Adhesion/drug effects
  • Cell Line
  • Endothelial Cells/metabolism
  • Escherichia coli/chemistry
  • Escherichia coli Proteins/chemistry
  • Humans
  • Intercellular Adhesion Molecule-1/biosynthesis
  • Malaria, Falciparum/drug therapy
  • Plasmodium falciparum/metabolism
  • cdc42 GTP-Binding Protein/biosynthesis
  • rac GTP-Binding Proteins/biosynthesis


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