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Host immune constraints on malaria transmission: insights from population biology of within-host parasites

Philip G McQueen1*, Kim C Williamson23 and F Ellis McKenzie4

Author Affiliations

1 Mathematical and Statistical Computing Laboratory, Division of Computational Bioscience, Center for Information Technology, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

2 Department of Biology, Chicago, Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA

3 Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

4 Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

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Malaria Journal 2013, 12:206  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-12-206

Published: 15 June 2013



Plasmodium infections trigger complex immune reactions from their hosts against several life stages of the parasite, including gametocytes. These immune responses are highly variable, depending on age, genetics, and exposure history of the host as well as species and strain of parasite. Although the effects of host antibodies that act against gamete stages in the mosquito (due to uptake in the blood meal) are well documented, the effects of host immunity upon within-host gametocytes are not as well understood. This report consists of a theoretical population biology-based analysis to determine constraints that host immunity impose upon gametocyte population growth. The details of the mathematical models used for the analysis were guided by published reports of clinical and animal studies, incorporated plausible modalities of immune reactions to parasites, and were tailored to the life cycl es of the two most widespread human malaria pathogens, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax.


For the same ability to bind and clear a target, the model simulations suggest that an antibody attacking immature gametocytes would tend to lower the overall density of transmissible mature gametocytes more than an antibody attacking the mature forms directly. Transmission of P. falciparum would be especially vulnerable to complete blocking by antibodies to its immature forms since its gametocytes take much longer to reach maturity than those of P. vivax. On the other hand, antibodies attacking the mature gametocytes directly would reduce the time the mature forms can linger in the host. Simulation results also suggest that varying the standard deviation in the time necessary for individual asexual parasites to develop and produce schizonts can affect the efficiency of production of transmissible gametocytes.


If mature gametocyte density determines the probability of transmission, both Plasmodium species, but especially P. falciparum, could bolster this probability through evasion or suppression of host immune responses against the immature gametocytes. However, if the long term lingering of mature gametocytes at low density in the host is also important to ensure transmission, then evasion or suppression of antibodies against the mature stages would bolster probability of transmission as well.