Scientists at Oxford University say they have developed a vaccine against the malaria parasite, and shown it to be effective against all the most deadly strains.

Lead researcher Dr Sandy Douglas of the University of Oxford says:

‘We have created a vaccine that confirms the recent discovery relating to the biology of RH5, given it can generate an immune response in animal models capable of neutralising many … and potentially all strains of the P. falciparum parasite, the deadliest species of malaria parasite.

This is an important step towards developing a much-needed vaccine against one of the world’s major killers.’

The team, led by Dr Simon Draper, with colleagues from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Kenyan Medical Research Institute-Wellcome Trust Programme in Kilifi, Kenya, have published their findings in the journal Nature Communications. Just a month ago they reported finding the weak spot in the malaria parasite that could provide the keyhole for vaccine development.

Malaria is primarily a problem in Africa where it frequently kills children and pregnant women. Estimates point to nearly one million deaths per year. The most deadly form P. falciparum accounts for nine out of ten of the deaths. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, funded by the founder of Microsoft as well as Warren Buffet, has made the battle against Malaria one of its primary goals.

Although researchers have come with a variety of novel ideas, including genetically modifying male mosquitoes so they are infertile, it is thought that vaccination would be the most cost effective and simplest way of eradicating the disease from the human population.

Although Malaria was a problem in the Americas, huge efforts by the military in the 1940s and 50s, primarily spraying with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a powerful insecticide, put an end to the disease. However DDT has since been banned in the US due to its accumulation in the food chain, and its effect on wildlife and possible cancerous effects on humans.

Although DDT is still used, experts tie the resurgence of malaria to multiple factors, including poor leadership, management and funding of malaria control programs; poverty; civil unrest; and increased irrigation. Unfortunately, a vaccine for Malaria has not been easy or quick to develop, as Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, explains:

‘Vaccines against malaria are notoriously difficult to develop because the parasites’ antigens the target of vaccines tend to be genetically so diverse. The RH5 antigen doesn’t show this diversity, making it a particularly good target for a vaccine to exploit.

Our next step will be to begin safety tests of this vaccine. If these prove successful, we could see clinical trials in patients beginning within the next two to three years.’

In South Africa, cessation of DDT use was directly correlated with an increase in malaria occurrence and there are advocates pushing for DDT to make a come back. Obviously, it is going to be far more effective if the team and Oxford have a vaccine alternative in place.

Written by Rupert Shepherd