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malaria vaccine research gathers pace

Malaria clinical trial in Ifakara, Tanzania. Swiss Tropical Institute

Behind the doors of the Swiss Tropical Institute (STI), malaria parasites frozen in liquid nitrogen are stored down the corridor from the mosquito breeding room.

It’s all systems go for the malaria research teams at the Basel-based institute, where vaccine testing has been an area of particular interest for the past 14 years.

Up to 40 per cent of the 200 staff members are assigned to the disease and they have built up an impressive pool of expertise.

The search for a vaccine, which has gained new momentum since 2000, has proven very challenging and time-consuming, although scientists are convinced a vaccine is feasible. And in the past two years there have been some encouraging developments.

The problem is the ingenuity of the malaria parasite. During its life cycle, and particularly while it is in the human body, it rapidly multiplies, changes its form, hiding places (liver, red blood cells) and even its surface structure.

STI director Marcel Tanner is very

enthusiastic about the research possibilities opened up by new public-private partnerships.

“It is actually through this paradigm shift of industry and public health community working together that we can move forward,” he told swissinfo.

Exploiting industrial resources

“Industries have so many interesting potential antigens [which produce antibodies] for vaccines and substances for drugs that have already been synthesised and characterised. We can now tap resources of the libraries from industry and explore them for their potential against malaria.”

The institute is active in clinical

development as well as pre-clinical discoveries. On the discovery side, the virosome approach for vaccines appears promising.

STI scientists take empty viruses – just the shell, without the genetic material – and attach malaria antigens to the surface. Then when the viruses are recognised by the immune system, anti-malaria antibodies are produced as well.

“The next area where we are very much involved is clinical development, testing. The most promising potential vaccine we have at the moment is RTSS, a genetically created recombinant.”

“This is part malaria parasite, part Hepatitis B combined together. It was developed in a public-private

deal between GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and US scientists.”

The vaccine showed efficacy in Mozambique with children aged one to four. Now, as part of a international consortium involving MVI (Malaria Vaccine Initiative), GSK and research teams in Africa and Europe, the STI and Tanzanian colleagues are starting a new trial in infants with this same vaccine in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.

Registered vaccine

“The large consortium working on this is financed by the Gates Foundation through MVI. If it works well the clinical development plan will be completed by 2009 and we could envisage a registered vaccine by 2009 or 2010,” Tanner said.

He believes that collaboration is a moral imperative for those working on this kind of research.

In January, the STI and Geneva-based Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) agreed to collaborate on vital research and development of effective therapies for another neglected disease, human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness.

“The single fighter attitude is very bad and even unethical when you have to tackle such large challenges for our societies,” Tanner added.

Malaria is a life-threatening parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles.

It is found throughout the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.

The Swiss Tropical Institute, founded in 1944, is an associate institute of Basel University.

The institute employs 207 people and has an annual budget of about SFr20 million.

Malaria causes more than 300 million acute illnesses and at least one million deaths annually.
90 per cent of deaths due to malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly among young children.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR