BACKGROUND: Malaria in pregnancy is a major cause of poor maternal and infant health, and is associated with the sequestration of P. falciparum-infected erythrocytes (IE) in the placenta. The leading vaccine candidate for pregnancy malaria, VAR2CSA, has been shown to induce antibodies that inhibit IE adhesion to the placental receptor chondroitin sulfate A (CSA), potentially preventing placental infection. However, the ability of vaccination-induced antibodies to promote opsonic phagocytosis is not well defined, but likely to be an important component of protective immunity. METHODS: We investigated the use of an opsonic phagocytosis assay to evaluate antibodies induced by pregnancy malaria vaccine candidate antigens based on VAR2CSA. Opsonic phagocytosis was measured by flow cytometry and visualized by electron microscopy. We measured vaccine-induced antibody reactivity to placental type IEs from different geographical origins, and the functional ability of antibodies raised in immunized rabbits to induce phagocytosis by a human monocyte cell line. RESULTS: Immunization-induced antibodies showed a mixture of strain-specific and cross-reactive antibody recognition of different placental-binding parasite lines. Antibodies generated against the DBL5 and DBL3 domains of VAR2CSA effectively promoted the opsonic phagocytosis of IEs by human monocytes; however, these functional antibodies were largely allele-specific and not cross-reactive. This has significant implications for the development of vaccines aiming to achieve a broad coverage against diverse parasite strains. Using competition ELISAs, we found that acquired human antibodies among pregnant women targeted both cross-reactive and allele-specific epitopes, consistent with what we observed with vaccine-induced antibodies. CONCLUSIONS: Vaccines based on domains of VAR2CSA induced opsonic phagocytosis of IEs in a strain-specific manner. Assays measuring this phagocytic activity have the potential to aid the development and evaluation of vaccines against malaria in pregnancy.
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We acknowledge the funding provided by the National Health and Medical
Research Council of Australia (Project Grant, Senior Research Fellowship to
JGB, Project Grant to SJR, Independent Research Institutes Infrastructure
Support), and Operational Infrastructure Support from the State Government
of Victoria, Australia.