Malaria vaccine trial hope27th September 2011
Researchers in West Africa say they are preparing to expand clinical trials of a malaria vaccine after a preliminary study showed very promising results.
The Burkina Faso trial was initially intended to test the new vaccine for safety, but researchers found that the children who were given it acquired high levels of protection against the killer disease.
They said the initial results were "most encouraging," are are now planning an expanded trial in nearby Mali, involving 800 children.
One of the characteristics of the new vaccine, known as MSP3, is that it could turn out to be very cheap to make.
MSP3 is only the second out of around 100 different candidates for malaria vaccines to show a high degree of protection against the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria.
The Burkina Faso study was small, involving just 45 children, and was a randomised, double-blind trial that was purely designed to test the safety of the vaccine.
They recorded an incidence of malaria that was three or four times high among unvaccinated children than among those they had vaccinated.
The children were divided into three groups, two of which received the MSP3 vaccine, developed by Pierre Druilhe of the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
The two groups that received the vaccine showed very similar immune responses, strengthening the research team's confidence in its effectiveness, in spite of the size of the group.
However, Druilhe warned against premature optimism, saying that the fight against malaria had seen "too many claims" of effective vaccines, and that caution was still in order.
In designing the vaccine, Druilhe and his team isolated a protein, MSP3, that stimulates the body to produce antibodies against plasmodium parasites, regardless of which strain is involved.
They took their cue from the acquired immunity picked up by some adults in Africa following constant exposure to the disease.
Large-scale epidemiological studies had shown a strong link between the presence of MSP3 and a person's level of immunity to malaria.
That is why immunisation with the molecule was likely to be effective, he said.
Former malaria vaccine chief at the US National Institutes of Health Louis Miller was also involved in the Burkina Faso trial, and said the results were promising in a field with few successes to date.
The expanded trial in Mali will be carried out in high-transmission areas, so any endorsement of the earlier result will carry much more weight.
Researchers funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have come up with one other malaria vaccine candidate, which will be made by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
However, it could be far more expensive than MSP3, and beyond the reach of those worst-affected by malaria.
Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, Druilhe said his vaccine, if proven effective, could cost less than 50 US cents per bottle.
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