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New malaria vaccine the first to offer complete protection

Several vaccines for malaria have been developed over the past few decades, but none offer complete protection. Now, for…

It’s not that easy, yet. Gates Foundation

Several vaccines for malaria have been developed over the past few decades, but none offer complete protection. Now, for the first time, US researchers have developed a vaccine that protects 100% of those given five doses of the vaccine.

Caused by Plasmodium parasites, malaria affects more than 200m people annually. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2010 malaria killed 660,000, most of them children. GlaxoSmithKline’s Mosquirix is the most advanced malaria vaccine currently being tested. It protects against Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly of the parasites.

But, as Brian Greenwood of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told The Conversation, “Mosquirix is only about 50% effective when given to older children and even less effective (about 30%) when given to young infants with routine vaccines. A better vaccine with a higher level of protection is needed.”

The new vaccine, dubbed PfSPZ, has been developed by Sanaria, a US biotech firm, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Like Mosquirix, it attacks the first stage of malaria called “pre-erythrocytic”, and may stem the disease before symptoms show. But unlike Mosquirix, which is made of proteins from the parasite’s surface, PfSPZ uses consists of sporozoites, a young form of the malarial parasite, that have been weaked by irradiation.

Irradiated Plasmodium falciparum sporozoites. Stephen Hoffman, Sanaria Inc.

Sanaria’s concoction was tested in 44 volunteers two years ago by delivering the sporozoites through an injection into the skin. But only two of them developed the required immunity. Later animal studies by Robert Seeder of NIH showed that delivering the vaccine by injecting directly in veins was more effective.

This is what Sanaria have done in the new trials. Each of their injections consisted of 135,000 irradiated sporozoites. Only three of the nine volunteers who were given four of these injections at one month intervals developed malaria. None of the six who were given five doses developed the disease.

The number of patients involved is tiny. Greenwood warns, “This is only a proof of principle study, although a very important one, and the experiment will need to be repeated on a larger numbers of subjects before it can be taken into field trials in malaria endemic areas.”

And scaling up is not going to be easy. Currently, the sporozoites are extracted from mosquitoes manually. Sanaria has employed 15 “dissectors” who can each tear open about 150 mosquitoes per hour. The process will need to be automated if PfSPZ is to make it to the market.

The limitations go further. PfSPZ needs to be stored in liquid nitrogen containers. Without five doses it cannot produce 100% protection. Those doses need to be delivered intravenously, which is difficult to do in infants and requires trained professionals for older children .

All this makes the vaccine, in its current form, expensive and impractical for a disease that affects the world’s poorest people. “However, the problems are not unsurmountable and there may be technical ways of addressing this challenge,” Greenwood said.

Adrian Hill, professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, welcomes Sanaria’s vaccine but feels he may have a better solution. His research group is working on combining Mosquirix with another vaccine that he believes could be as effective as PfSPZ and won’t have the same limitations.

“Mosquirix attacks the first half of the pre-erthyrocytic stage,” he said. “Our vaccine attacks the second half of that stage using a viral vector to deliver the antigen (a molecule that activates the immune system). It is this combination that may do the trick.”

Sanaria’s results, published in the journal Science today, are at the very beginning of the vaccine development. There are many other vaccines at various stages of development intermediate between that of the Sanaria vaccine and Mosquirix. “These other vaccines may come to market quicker than PfSPZ, given its limitations,” said Hill, who is optimistic something good will emerge from them. “If all goes well, by 2020, we should have a cheap and effective malaria vaccine.”

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    At last...some good news. Great work and congratulations to the research team!!

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  2. John Doyle
    John Doyle is a Friend of The Conversation.

    architect

    Could that eventually mean malaria could go the way of smallpox? I mean I don't know whether other species are affected as we never get that sort of news in the mainstream press.
    At least could humans avoid passing on the parasite to others?

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    1. Akshat Rathi

      Science and Data Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to John Doyle

      Indeed, that is the long-term goal. Sanaria's vaccine and Mosquirix only target falciparum parasite, but there are a few others that cause disease too.

      And yes, if enough people are vaccinated regularly, you can imagine that the disease could eliminated. Just like polio might be soon. Might take a few decades though. It's really hard thing to do, which Bill Gates understands best.

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    2. Frank MacGill

      Brain Surgeon, Project Manager

      In reply to Akshat Rathi

      What a strange claim, Akshat. What makes you think Bill Gates understands how to eliminate malaria better than any other human? His education? His experience as a scientist? His money?

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