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Open Access Methodology

Simultaneous determination of phagocytosis of Plasmodium falciparum-parasitized and non-parasitized red blood cells by flow cytometry

Valentina Gallo, Oleksii A Skorokhod, Evelin Schwarzer and Paolo Arese*

Author Affiliations

Department of Genetics, Biology and Biochemistry, University of Torino, Torino, Italy

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Malaria Journal 2012, 11:428  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-11-428

Published: 21 December 2012



Severe falciparum malaria anaemia (SMA) is a frequent cause of mortality in children and pregnant women. The most important determinant of SMA appears to be the loss of non-parasitized red blood cells (np-RBCs) in excess of loss of parasitized (p-) RBCs at schizogony. Based on data from acute SMA where excretion of haemoglobin in urine and increased plasma haemoglobin represented respectively less than 1% and 0.5% of total Hb loss, phagocytosis appears to be the predominant mechanism of removal of np- and p-RBC.

Estimates indicate that np-RBCs are cleared in approximately 10-fold excess compared to p-RBCs. An even larger removal of np-RBCs has been described in vivax malaria anaemia. Estimates were based on two single studies both performed on neurosyphilitic patients who underwent malaria therapy. As the share of np-RBC removal is likely to vary between wide limits, it is important to assess the contribution of both np- and p-RBC populations to overall RBC loss, and disclose the mechanism of such variability. As available methods do not discriminate between the removal of np- vs p-RBCs, the purpose of this study was to set up a system allowing the simultaneous determination of phagocytosis of p- and np-RBC in the same sample.

Methods and Results

Phagocytosis of p- and np-RBCs was quantified in the same sample using double-labelled target cells and the human phagocytic cell-line THP-1, pre-activated by TNF and IFNγ to enhance their phagocytic activity. Target RBCs were double-labelled with fluorescent carboxyfluorescein-succinimidyl ester (CF-SE) and the DNA label ethidium bromide (EB). EB, a DNA label, allowed to discriminate p-RBCs that contain parasitic DNA from the np-RBCs devoid of DNA. FACS analysis of THP-1 cells fed with double-labelled RBCs showed that p- and np-RBCs were phagocytosed in different proportions in relation to parasitaemia.


The assay allowed the analysis of phagocytosis rapidly and with low subjective error, and the differentiation between phagocytosed p- and np-RBCs in the same sample. The presented method may help to analyse the factors or conditions that modulate the share of np-RBC removal in vitro and in vivo and lead to a better understanding of the pathogenesis of SMA.

Malaria anaemia; Phagocytosis method; THP-1 cells; Phagocyte