Plasmodium falciparum malaria remains one of the world's leading causes of human suffering and poverty. Each year, the disease takes 1-3 million lives, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. The adhesion of infected erythrocytes (IEs) to vascular endothelium or placenta is the key event in the pathogenesis of severe P. falciparum infection. In pregnant women, the parasites express a single and unique member of the P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1) family named VAR2CSA, which is associated with the ability of the IEs to adhere specifically to chondroitin sulphate A (CSA) in the placenta. Several Duffy-binding-like domains from VAR2CSA molecules have been shown in vitro to bind to CSA, but it has also been demonstrated that Duffy-binding-like domains from PfEMP1 proteins other than VAR2CSA can bind CSA. In addition, the specificity of the binding of VAR2CSA domains to glycosaminoglycans does not match that of VAR2CSA-expressing IEs. This has led to speculation that the domains of native VAR2CSA need to come together to form a specific binding site or that VAR2CSA might bind to CSA through a bridging molecule. Here, we describe the expression and purification of the complete extracellular region of VAR2CSA secreted at high yields from insect cells. Using surface plasmon resonance, we demonstrate that VAR2CSA alone binds with nanomolar affinity to human chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan and with significantly weaker affinity to other glycosaminoglycans, showing a specificity similar to that observed for IEs. Antibodies raised against full-length VAR2CSA completely inhibit recombinant VAR2CSA binding, as well as parasite binding to chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan. This is the first study to describe the successful production and functionality of a full-length PfEMP1. The specificity of the binding and anti-adhesion potency of induced IgG, together with high-yield production, encourages the use of full-length PfEMP1 in vaccine development strategies.
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