Quantification of Plasmodium knowlesi versus Plasmodium falciparum in the rhesus liver: implications for malaria vaccine studies in rhesus models

Malar J. 2020 Aug 31;19(1):313. doi: 10.1186/s12936-020-03385-4.


Background: Rhesus macaques are valuable pre-clinical models for malaria vaccine development. The Plasmodium knowlesi/rhesus and Plasmodium falciparum/rhesus models are two established platforms for malaria vaccine testing, and both have previously been used to assess live-attenuated sporozoite vaccines. However, there is evidence that the susceptibility of the rhesus liver to P. knowlesi versus P. falciparum sporozoites likely differs, potentially complicating comparisons between these two platforms.

Methods: To quantify the differing susceptibility of rhesus to P. knowlesi and P. falciparum sporozoites, animals were infected by direct venous inoculation of purified, cryopreserved wild-type P. knowlesi sporozoites (PkSPZ) or P. falciparum sporozoites (PfSPZ). The entire liver was collected 5 days post-infection, and parasite burden in each liver lobe was quantified using an ultrasensitive Plasmodium 18S rRNA RT-PCR biomarker assay. The potential of using 18S rRNA copy number in the rhesus liver to directly measure the efficacy of vaccines targeting P. falciparum sporozoites and liver stages was also theoretically evaluated.

Results: Infection of rhesus with a high dose of PkSPZ led to consistently high burden liver stage infections (range 9.5-10.1 log10 copies 18S rRNA/g of liver), with similar amounts of parasite 18S rRNA detected in every liver lobe. Inoculation of rhesus with high doses of PfSPZ led to more variable, lower liver burdens (range 4.9-6.6 log10 copies 18S rRNA/g of liver in infected lobes), with parasite 18S rRNA below the limit of detection in some liver lobes. The low signal and heterogeneity of liver burden in the PfSPZ-infected animals indicates that even this extremely sensitive molecular assay cannot be used to assess reliably vaccine efficacy in the P. falciparum/rhesus platform.

Conclusions: Detection of 18S rRNA in the liver following high dose intravenous PfSPZ confirmed that rhesus are modestly susceptible to wild-type P. falciparum sporozoites. However, comparison of 18S rRNA RT-PCR biomarker signal indicates that the P. falciparum liver burden was 3-5 logs lower than in PkSPZ-infected animals. Quantification of this difference in liver stage burden will help guide and interpret data from pre-clinical studies of live-attenuated sporozoite vaccines in rhesus models.

Keywords: P. falciparum; P. knowlesi; PfSPZ; PkSPZ; Rhesus macaque; Sporozoite; Vaccine.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Liver / parasitology
  • Macaca mulatta / immunology*
  • Macaca mulatta / parasitology
  • Malaria Vaccines / immunology*
  • Male
  • Plasmodium falciparum / immunology*
  • Plasmodium knowlesi / immunology*
  • RNA, Protozoan / metabolism
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 18S / metabolism
  • Sporozoites / immunology*
  • Vaccines, Attenuated / immunology


  • Malaria Vaccines
  • RNA, Protozoan
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 18S
  • Vaccines, Attenuated