A novel endogenous antimalarial: Fe(II)-protoporphyrin IX alpha (heme) inhibits hematin polymerization to beta-hematin (malaria pigment) and kills malaria parasites

Biochemistry. 1999 Jul 13;38(28):8858-63. doi: 10.1021/bi990085k.


The polymerization of hemoglobin-derived ferric-protoporphyrin IX [Fe(III)PPIX] to inert hemozoin (malaria pigment) is a crucial and unique process for intraerythrocytic plasmodia to prevent heme toxicity and thus a good target for new antimalarials. Quinoline drugs, i.e., chloroquine, and non-iron porphyrins have been shown to block polymerization by forming electronic pi-pi interactions with heme monomers. Here, we report the identification of ferrous-protoporphyrin IX [Fe(II)PPIX] as a novel endogenous anti-malarial. Fe(II)PPIX molecules, released from the proteolysis of hemoglobin, are first oxidized and then polymerized to hemozoin. We obtained Fe(II)PPIX on preparative scale by electrochemical reduction of Fe(III)PPIX, and the reaction was monitored by cyclic voltammetry. Polymerization assays at acidic pH were conducted with the resulting Fe(II)PPIX using a spectrophotometric microassay of heme polymerization adapted to anaerobic conditions and the products characterized by infrared spectroscopy. Fe(II)PPIX (a) did not polymerize and (b) produced a dose-dependent inhibition of Fe(III)PPIX polymerization (IC(50) = 0.4 molar equiv). Moreover, Fe(II)PPIX produced by chemical reduction with thiol-containing compounds gave similar results: a dose-dependent inhibition of heme polymerization was observed using either L-cysteine, N-acetylcysteine, or DL-homocysteine, but not with L-cystine. Cyclic voltammetry confirmed that the inhibition of heme polymerization was due to the Fe(II)PPIX molecules generated by the thiol-mediated reduction of Fe(III)PPIX. These results point to Fe(II)PPIX as a potential endogenous antimalarial and to Fe(III)PPIX reduction as a potential new pharmacological target.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimalarials / chemistry
  • Antimalarials / pharmacology*
  • Electrochemistry
  • Erythrocytes / physiology
  • Ferrous Compounds / blood
  • Ferrous Compounds / pharmacology*
  • Heme / physiology*
  • Hemin / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Hemin / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Pigments, Biological / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Pigments, Biological / blood
  • Plasmodium falciparum / drug effects
  • Plasmodium falciparum / growth & development*
  • Polymers / metabolism
  • Protoporphyrins / blood
  • Protoporphyrins / physiology*
  • Protoporphyrins / toxicity
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds / pharmacology


  • Antimalarials
  • Ferrous Compounds
  • Pigments, Biological
  • Polymers
  • Protoporphyrins
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • Heme
  • Hemin
  • protoporphyrin IX