Plasma cell-free DNA predicts pediatric cerebral malaria severity

Published: June 18, 2020


Vera IM, Kessler A, Ting LM, Harawa V, Keller T, Allen D, Njie M, Moss M, Soko M, Ahmadu A, Kadwala I, Ray S, Nyirenda TS, Mandala WL, Taylor TE, Rogerson SJ, Seydel KB, Kim K. Plasma cell-free DNA predicts pediatric cerebral malaria severity. JCI Insight. 2020 Jun 18;5(12):e136279. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.136279. PMID: 32554925; PMCID: PMC7406267.



Prediction of adverse outcomes in cerebral malaria (CM) is difficult. We hypothesized that cell-free DNA (cfDNA) levels would facilitate identification of severe and potentially fatal CM cases.


In this retrospective study, plasma from Malawian children with CM (n = 134), uncomplicated malaria (UM, n = 77), and healthy controls (HC, n = 60) was assayed for cfDNA using a fluorescence assay. Host and parasite cfDNA was measured by quantitative PCR. Immune markers were determined by ELISA, Luminex, or cytometric bead array.


Total cfDNA increased with malaria severity (HC versus UM, P < 0.001; HC versus CM, P < 0.0001; UM versus CM, P < 0.0001), was elevated in retinopathy-positive (Ret+) CM relative to Ret- CM (7.66 versus 5.47 ng/μL, P = 0.027), and differentiated Ret+ fatal cases from survivors (AUC 0.779; P < 0.001). cfDNA levels in patients with non-malarial febrile illness (NMF, P = 0.25) and non-malarial coma (NMC, P = 0.99) were comparable with UM. Host DNA, rather than parasite DNA, was the major cfDNA contributor (UM, 268 versus 67 pg/μL; CM, 2824 versus 463 pg/μL). Host and parasite cfDNA distinguished CM by retinopathy (host, AUC 0.715, P = 0.0001; parasite, AUC 0.745, P = 0.0001), but only host cfDNA distinguished fatal cases (AUC 0.715, P = 0.0001). Total cfDNA correlated with neutrophil markers IL-8 (rs = 0.433, P < 0.0001) and myeloperoxidase (rs = 0.683, P < 0.0001).


Quantifying plasma cfDNA is a simple assay useful in identifying children at risk for fatal outcome and has promise as a point-of-care assay. Elevated cfDNA suggests a link with host inflammatory pathways in fatal CM.

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