Histidine-rich protein II (HRPII) is secreted by Plasmodium falciparum during the blood stage of malaria infection. High plasma levels of HRPII are associated with cerebral malaria, a severe and highly fatal complication of malaria. HRPII has been shown to induce vascular leakage, the hallmark of cerebral malaria, in blood–brain barrier (BBB) and animal models. We have discovered an important mechanism for BBB disruption that is driven by unique features of HRPII. By characterizing serum from infected patients and HRPII produced by P. falciparum parasites in culture, we found that HRPII exists in large multimeric particles of 14 polypeptides that are richly laden with up to 700 hemes per particle. Heme loading of HRPII is required for efficient binding and internalization via caveolin-mediated endocytosis in hCMEC/D3 cerebral microvascular endothelial cells. Upon acidification of endolysosomes, two-thirds of the hemes are released from acid-labile binding sites and metabolized by heme oxygenase 1, generating ferric iron and reactive oxygen species. Subsequent activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome and IL-1β secretion resulted in endothelial leakage. Inhibition of these pathways with heme sequestration, iron chelation, or anti-inflammatory drugs protected the integrity of the BBB culture model from HRPII:heme. Increased cerebral vascular permeability was seen after injection of young mice with heme-loaded HRPII (HRPII:heme) but not with heme-depleted HRPII. We propose that during severe malaria infection, HRPII:heme nanoparticles in the bloodstream deliver an overwhelming iron load to endothelial cells to cause vascular inflammation and edema. Disrupting this process is an opportunity for targeted adjunctive therapies to reduce the morbidity and mortality of cerebral malaria.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2306318120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number26
StatePublished - 2023


  • blood–brain barrier
  • heme oxygenase
  • malaria pathogenesis


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