The new vaccine uses a genetically-modified strain of the malaria parasite to protect people who are at risk from malaria infection. It has been developed by a team of researchers led by Dr Krystal Evans, Professor Louis Schofield and Professor Alan Cowman from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s Infection and Immunity division, and Professor James McCarthy from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.
Malaria kills about 700,000 people a year, mostly children aged under five and pregnant women. Every year, hundreds of millions of people are infected with the malaria parasite, Plasmodium, which is transmitted through mosquito bites. It is estimated that half the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria, with the disease being concentrated in tropical and subtropical regions including many of Australia’s near neighbours.
Despite the urgent need for a malaria vaccine, no effective vaccine currently exists.
The vaccine being trialled targets the blood stage of malaria infection – the stage that is responsible for symptoms such as headache, fever, shivering and joint pain.
Dr Evans said the design of the genetically attenuated parasite (GAP) vaccine was based on many years of research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute which had identified critical molecules in the malaria parasite that can be recognised by the immune system.
The manufacture and trial of the GAP vaccine is being supported by an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grant.
“The funding will allow us to firstly manufacture the vaccine in sufficient quantities, and to high enough standards for human trials,” Dr Evans said.
“We will then have the opportunity to test how effective the vaccine is in inducing a protective immune response against malaria. If these trials are successful, the next stage will be to develop the vaccine further, by adding additional features to prevent malaria transmission, such as modifying it to match regional and species variants of the malaria parasite.”
The genetically attenuated parasites to be used in the trial are being manufactured at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which has the only facility worldwide capable of producing genetically-altered malaria parasites that comply with the good manufacturing practice guidelines required for human clinical trials.
Professor Schofield said the GAP vaccine represented an important new approach to combatting malaria. “There is a clear need for a vaccine against malaria,” he said. “In many parts of the world, the malaria parasite has developed resistance to antimalarial medications.
“An effective vaccine could offer people in malaria-endemic regions long-lasting protection against this devastating disease. The GAP vaccine has the ability to be modified to suit the variability that occurs in malaria between regions and over time.
“The NHMRC Development Grant scheme is allowing us to develop vaccine research projects from the laboratory through to clinical trials, a stage of research that is traditionally difficult to find support for. We are also grateful for the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided seed funding that was vital for the early stages of the project.
Professor Schofield’s malaria vaccine research will be featured in a public lecture tonight, as part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s recognition of World Malaria Day, a day that highlights the global efforts to control malaria.
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