Understanding the targets and mechanisms of human immunity to malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum is crucial for advancing effective vaccines and developing tools for measuring immunity and exposure in populations. Acquired immunity to malaria predominantly targets the blood stage of infection when merozoites of Plasmodium spp. infect erythrocytes and replicate within them. During the intra-erythrocytic development of P. falciparum, numerous parasite-derived antigens are expressed on the surface of infected erythrocytes (IEs). These antigens enable P. falciparum-IEs to adhere in the vasculature and accumulate in multiple organs, which is a key process in the pathogenesis of disease. IE surface antigens, often referred to as variant surface antigens, are important targets of acquired protective immunity and include PfEMP1, RIFIN, STEVOR and SURFIN. These antigens are highly polymorphic and encoded by multigene families, which generate substantial antigenic diversity to mediate immune evasion. The most important immune target appears to be PfEMP1, which is a major ligand for vascular adhesion and sequestration of IEs. Studies are beginning to identify specific variants of PfEMP1 linked to disease pathogenesis that may be suitable for vaccine development, but overcoming antigenic diversity in PfEMP1 remains a major challenge. Much less is known about other surface antigens, or antigens on the surface of gametocyte-IEs, the effector mechanisms that mediate immunity, and how immunity is acquired and maintained over time; these are important topics for future research.
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