New drugs to treat malaria are urgently needed. Cysteine proteases of malaria parasites offer potential new chemotherapeutic targets. Cysteine protease inhibitors block parasite hemoglobin hydrolysis and development, indicating that cysteine proteases play a key role in hemoglobin degradation, a necessary function of erythrocytic trophozoites. These inhibitors also block the rupture of erythrocytes by mature parasites, suggesting an additional role for cysteine proteases in the hydrolysis of erythrocyte cytoskeletal proteins. Recent studies have shown that the repertoire of cysteine proteases of malaria parasites is larger than was previously realized. Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent human malaria parasite, expresses three papain-family cysteine proteases, known as falcipains. All three proteases are expressed by trophozoites and hydrolyze hemoglobin at acidic pH, suggesting roles in this process. Falcipain-2 also hydrolyzes ankyrin at neutral pH, suggesting additional activity against erythrocyte cytoskeletal targets. Multiple orthologs of the falcipains have been identified in other plasmodial species. Analysis of orthologs from animal model rodent parasites identified similar features, but some noteworthy biochemical differences between the cysteine proteases. These differences must be taken into account in interpreting in vivo experiments. A number of small molecule cysteine protease inhibitors blocked parasite hemoglobin hydrolysis and development, and inhibitory effects against parasites generally correlated with inhibition of falcipain-2. Some compounds also cured mice infected with otherwise lethal malaria infections. Current research priorities are to better characterize the biological roles and biochemical features of the falcipains. In addition, efforts to identify optimal falcipain inhibitors as antimalarials are underway.
Keywords: vinckepain, berghepain-2, malaria, plasmodium, falcipain, chemotherapy
Rights & PermissionsPrintExport