During the erythrocytic cycle, Plasmodium falciparum is highly dependent on an adequate thiol status for its survival. Glutathione reductase as well as de novo synthesis of GSH are responsible for the maintenance of the intracellular GSH level. The first and rate-limiting step of the synthetic pathway is catalysed by γ-glutamylcysteine synthetase (γ-GCS). Using L-buthionine-(S,R)-sulphoximine (BSO), a specific inhibitor of the γ-GCS, we show that the infection with P. falciparum causes drastic changes in the GSH metabolism of red blood cells (RBCs). Infected RBCs lose GSH at a rate 40-fold higher than non-infected RBCs. The de novo synthesis of the tripeptide was found to be essential for parasite survival. GSH depletion by BSO inhibits the development of P. falciparum with an IC50 of 73 μM. The effect of the drug is abolished by supplementation with GSH or GSH monoethyl ester. Our studies demonstrate that the plasmodicidal effect of the inhibitor BSO does not depend on its specificity towards its target enzyme in the parasite, but on the changed physiological needs for the metabolite GSH in the P. falciparum-infected RBCs. Therefore the depletion of GSH is proposed as a chemotherapeutic strategy for malaria, and γ-GCS is proposed as a potential drug target.

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