Inhibition by chloroquine of a novel haem polymerase enzyme activity in malaria trophozoites

Nature. 1992 Jan 9;355(6356):167-9. doi: 10.1038/355167a0.


The incidence of human malaria has increased during the past 20 years; 270 million people are now estimated to be infected with the parasite. An important contribution to this increase has been the appearance of malaria organisms resistant to quinoline-containing antimalarials such as chloroquine and quinine. These drugs accumulate in the acid food vacuoles of the intraerythrocytic-stage malaria parasite, although the mechanism of their specific toxicity in this organelle is uncertain. The primary function of the food vacuole is the proteolysis of ingested red cell haemoglobin to provide the growing parasite with essential amino acids. Haemoglobin breakdown in the food vacuole releases haem, which if soluble can damage biological membranes and inhibit a variety of enzymes. Rather than degrading or excreting the haem, the parasite has evolved a novel pathway for its detoxification by incorporating it into an insoluble crystalline material called haemozoin or malaria pigment. These crystals form in the food vacuole of the parasite concomitant with haemoglobin degradation, where they remain until the infected red cell bursts. The structure of haemozoin comprises a polymer of haems linked between the central ferric ion of one haem and a carboxylate side-group oxygen of another. This structure does not form spontaneously from either free haem or haemoglobin under physiological conditions, and the biochemistry of its formation is unclear. Here we report the identification and characterization of a haem polymerase enzyme activity from extracts of Plasmodium falciparum trophozoites, and show that this enzyme is inhibited by quinoline-containing drugs such as chloroquine and quinine. This provides a possible explanation for the highly stage-specific antimalarial properties of these drugs.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chloroquine / pharmacology*
  • Erythrocytes / parasitology
  • Heme / metabolism
  • Hemeproteins / metabolism
  • Hemoglobins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Pigments, Biological / metabolism
  • Plasmodium falciparum / drug effects
  • Plasmodium falciparum / enzymology*
  • Plasmodium falciparum / ultrastructure
  • Transferases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Vacuoles / metabolism


  • Hemeproteins
  • Hemoglobins
  • Pigments, Biological
  • hemozoin
  • Heme
  • Chloroquine
  • Transferases
  • heme polymerase