The researchers said on Thursday an experimental vaccine based on
this idea protected mice in five trials and will be tested on lab
monkeys beginning in the next four to six weeks.
Dr. Jonathan Kurtis, director of Rhode Island Hospital's Center for
International Health Research, said if the monkey trials go well, a
so-called Phase I clinical trial testing the vaccine in a small
group of people could begin within a year and a half.
Using blood samples and epidemiological data collected from hundreds
of children in Tanzania, where malaria is endemic, by Drs. Patrick
Duffy and Michal Fried of the U.S. National Institutes of Health,
the researchers pinpointed a protein, dubbed PfSEA-1, that the
parasites need in order to escape from inside red blood cells they
infect as they cause malaria.
The researchers then found that antibodies sent by the body's immune
system to take action against this protein managed to trap the
parasites inside the red blood cells, blocking the progression of
Scientists have struggled for years to create an effective vaccine
against malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that the U.N. World Health
Organization estimates kills 627,000 people a year, mostly children
in sub-Saharan Africa.
"It's profoundly important to develop an effective malaria vaccine,"
said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases, calling the study "a novel and
different type of an approach toward a vaccine."
"Since the malaria parasite has such a complex replication cycle,
there are multiple points in that replication cycle that are
vulnerable to interference by an antibody or some response that can
be induced by a vaccine," Fauci told Reuters.
'A BURNING HOUSE'
Microscopic malaria parasites are carried in the saliva of female
mosquitoes and enter a person's bloodstream through the insect's
bite. The parasites pass through the liver and infect red blood
cells. They replicate wildly in these cells and cause them to
rupture, flooding the body with more and more parasites.
Two existing approaches to vaccine development have sought to block
the parasites from entering the liver or red blood cells. The new
approach instead tries to bottle them up inside the red blood cells
- or, as Kurtis put it, "trap them inside a burning house."
[to top of second column]
If the parasites remain trapped, they can be harmlessly gobbled up
in the spleen by immune system cells called macrophages, Kurtis
The researchers developed a vaccine that targeted PfSEA-1 and tried
it on mice. In five experiments, vaccinated mice that were exposed
to malaria had parasite levels four times lower than unvaccinated
mice and survived twice as long afterward.
The researchers then looked at blood samples from some of the
Tanzanian children. Roughly one in 20 had naturally occurring levels
of the antibodies that target PfSEA-1, and among these children
there were no cases of severe malaria.
The researchers also examined blood samples from 138 boys and men
from a malaria-endemic area of Kenya. Those with detectable levels
of naturally occurring antibodies to PfSEA-1 had 50 percent lower
parasite levels than those who did not.
Kurtis expressed hope about the prospects of a vaccine targeting
this protein, but said the best future vaccine likely would combine
this approach with others to attack the parasite on several fronts.
He noted that there is currently no licensed vaccine for human
The study was published in the journal Science.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by James Dalgleish)
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