Background: Facilitation of endogenous neuroprotective pathways, such as the erythropoietin (Epo) pathway, has been proposed as adjuvant treatment strategies in cerebral malaria. Whether different endogenous protein expression levels of Epo or differences in the abundance of its receptor components could account for the extent of structural neuropathological changes or neurological complications in adults with severe malaria was investigated.
Methods: High sensitivity immunohistochemistry was used to assess the frequency, distribution and concordance of Epo and components of its homodimeric and heteromeric receptors, Epo receptor and CD131, within the brainstem of adults who died of severe malaria. The following relationships with Epo and its receptor components were also defined: (i) sequestration and indicators of hypoxia; (ii) vascular damage in the form of plasma protein leakage and haemorrhage; (iii) clinical complications and neuropathological features of severe malaria disease. Brainstems of patients dying in the UK from unrelated non-infectious causes were examined for comparison.
Results: The incidence of endogenous Epo in parenchymal brain cells did not greatly differ between severe malaria and non-neurological UK controls at the time of death. However, EpoR and CD131 labelling of neurons was greater in severe malaria compared with non-neurological controls (P = .009). EpoR labelling of vessels was positively correlated with admission peripheral parasite count (P = .01) and cerebral sequestration (P < .0001). There was a strong negative correlation between arterial oxygen saturation and EpoR labelling of glia (P = .001). There were no significant correlations with indicators of vascular damage, neuronal chromatolysis, axonal swelling or vital organ failure.
Conclusion: Cells within the brainstem of severe malaria patients showed protein expression of Epo and its receptor components. However, the incidence of endogeneous expression did not reflect protection from vascular or neuronal injury, and/or clinical manifestations, such as coma. These findings do not provide support for Epo as an adjuvant neuroprotective agent in adults with severe malaria.