Australian-developed malaria vaccine passes first human trials

By Ellen Rykers 27 March 2017
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The successful clinical trials are a big step in the worldwide effort to combat malaria, which kills around 500,000 people every year.

A MALARIA VACCINE developed by Australian researchers has passed initial human clinical trials.

The success marks a significant step towards finding a cure for one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

In the ‘first-in-man’ study, a research team led by Dr Danielle Stanisic and Professor Michael Good AO determined the vaccine is safe and induces an immune response in humans.

Researchers from the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University in Queensland developed the vaccine, called PlasProtect®, and conducted trials in collaboration with the Gold Coast University Hospital.

For Michael, the clinical trials were an opportunity to step back from research and step into the role of test subject. He became the first human to receive the brand-new vaccine.

“I believe that we can’t really expect others to do something we researchers aren’t prepared to do ourselves,” he said.

The vaccine’s innovative formulation consists of whole parasites that are chemically inactivated, making them unable to divide and spread.

“The immune system believes the inactivated parasites are the real thing,” explained Michael, “and it responds as if you have a malaria infection when in fact you do not.”

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“A world-first”

The innovative vaccine has been years in the making. According to Danielle, pre-clinical studies showed the vaccine protected against different strains and species of the malaria parasite.

“We’ve now taken a human version of the vaccine and tested it in volunteers,” she said. “In all eight volunteers, we were able to show that the vaccine is safe and well-tolerated, and it induces a good immune response.”

The trial results are encouraging, Danielle said. “This is a world-first,” she said. “We are the first to put a vaccine like this into humans that has the potential to protect against multiple strains and species of malaria.”

Professor Louis Schofield, Director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University in Townsville, said the research was an important first step.

“It’s great to see such positive initial results for an inactivated vaccine,” he said. “A malaria vaccine is urgently required, but development has had limited success to date.”

Louis, who was not involved with the research, said he hopes the vaccine works. “The world needs improved and innovative approaches to malaria vaccines and this looks promising.”

Malaria is responsible for around half a million deaths every year – mostly children and pregnant women. Forty per cent of the world’s population are at risk of contracting the parasite, and 214 million people will fall ill with the disease each year. With increasing resistance to both drugs and insecticides, malaria is becoming more difficult to treat – making the development of a vaccine essential.

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Fundraising needed for future trials

The next step in the development process will include large trials to determine whether the vaccine protects against malaria infection. Rotary Clubs around Australia are fundraising to support the continued research and have raised $50,000 of the $500,000 needed so far.

“Depending on fundraising efforts, we will start the larger study either late this year or early next year,” said Danielle. “We will take some volunteers and give them three doses of our vaccine. Then we challenge them with the malaria parasite to see whether or not they’re protected.”

The research team is optimistic about the future trials. “We’re pretty confident we will see some immunity, based on the earlier trial results and the results seen in rodents,” Danielle said.

However, a lengthy and rigorous testing process lays ahead, added Danielle. “You’re looking at a number of years before it would be available.”

To donate, visit the Malaria Vaccine Project.