Cysteine proteases of malaria parasites

Int J Parasitol. 2004 Dec;34(13-14):1489-99. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpara.2004.10.003.


A number of cysteine proteases of malaria parasites have been described, and many more putative cysteine proteases are suggested by analysis of the Plasmodium falciparum genome sequence. Studies with protease inhibitors have suggested roles for cysteine proteases in hemoglobin hydrolysis, erythrocyte rupture, and erythrocyte invasion by erythrocytic malaria parasites. The best characterised Plasmodium cysteine proteases are the falcipains, a family of papain-family (clan CA) enzymes. Falcipain-2 and falcipain-3 are hemoglobinases that appear to hydrolyse host erythrocyte hemoglobin in the parasite food vacuole. This function was recently confirmed for falcipain-2, with the demonstration that disruption of the falcipain-2 gene led to a transient block in hemoglobin hydrolysis. A role for falcipain-1 in erythrocyte invasion was recently suggested, but disruption of the falcipain-1 gene did not alter parasite development. Other papain-family proteases predicted by the genome sequence include dipeptidyl peptidases, a calpain homolog, and serine-repeat antigens. The serine-repeat antigens have cysteine protease motifs, but in some the active site Cys is replaced by a Ser. One of these proteins, SERA-5, was recently shown to have serine protease activity. As SERA-5 and some other serine-repeat antigens localise to the parasitophorous vacuole in mature parasites, they may play a role in erythrocyte rupture. The P. falciparum genome sequence also predicts more distantly related (clan CD and CE) cysteine proteases, but biochemical characterisation of these proteins has not been done. New drugs for malaria are greatly needed, and cysteine proteases may provide useful new drug targets. Cysteine protease inhibitors have demonstrated potent antimalarial effects, and the optimisation and testing of falcipain inhibitor antimalarials is underway.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimalarials / therapeutic use
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases / genetics
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases / physiology*
  • Cysteine Proteinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Erythrocytes / parasitology
  • Genes, Protozoan
  • Malaria / parasitology*
  • Plasmodium / enzymology*
  • Plasmodium / genetics
  • Plasmodium falciparum / enzymology
  • Plasmodium falciparum / genetics


  • Antimalarials
  • Cysteine Proteinase Inhibitors
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases