Inhaled carbon monoxide could be a cheap and simple way of preventing cerebral malaria, according to a study published online in Nature Medicine last week (13 May)..
Researchers found that small quantities of inhaled carbon monoxide helped prevent the malaria parasite from breaching the blood brain barrier.
The blood brain barrier is a membrane that protects the brain tissues. Cerebral malaria develops when it is penetrated by the malaria parasite.
Treatment with carbon monoxide also reduced inflammation and haemorrhage, and prevented small vessels in the brain from becoming clogged ― symptoms that are associated with the development of cerebral malaria.
The research was conducted by scientists at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, and the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Gulbenkian Institute of Science in Portugal.
They found that carbon monoxide mimics the action of a natural enzyme released by the body in response to infection with the malaria parasite.
Both carbon monoxide and the natural enzyme reduce the effects of a toxic molecule called heme that is released from red blood cells infected with the malaria parasite.
Heme is responsible for many of the symptoms of malaria infection that lead to death.
Nathan Mulure, a local malria researcher from Nairobi, says the study should be repeated in human beings.
"Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas to human beings so its application to humans may have other effects," Mulure told SciDev.Net.
Cerebral malaria is a severe form of malaria that affects the brain and is fatal in about 30–50 per cent of cases. According to the World Health Organization, it affects 300–500 million people every year, resulting in over one million deaths.