Firing new shots in the malaria war, a vaccine still in the testing stage is now a step closer to becoming a public health reality [Science News]. Two field trials in Kenya and Tanzania showed that the experimental drug reduced malaria infections by more than 50 percent in infants and young children; if a final set of trials proves that the vaccine is indeed safe and effective, the vaccine could be ready for use by 2011.
If the phase three trials are successful, it would be “an extraordinary scientific triumph,” said Dr. W. Ripley Ballou, deputy director for vaccines and infectious diseases for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the research. But more importantly,” Ballou added, “it could save millions of children’s lives” [Los Angeles Times]. Malaria kills about 1 million people around the world each year, and most of the victims are children under the age of five.
In the two studies, both published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers say they didn’t expect the vaccine to be 100 percent effective against malaria, unlike vaccines against diseases like smallpox and measles. However, even partial protection would be a great advance, researchers say.
There are several types of malaria parasite, all spread among humans by mosquitoes. The vaccine, dubbed RTS,S by its maker GlaxoSmithKline, targets the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most severe form of the disease [Science News]. Malaria is a particularly difficult disease to fight because people can be reinfected by mosquitoes many times in their lives; current efforts to combat infections in Africa focus largely on preventative measures like mosquito nets around beds and insecticides.
The development of this promising vaccine illustrates how some deep-pocketed charities are breathing new life into research for potentially life-saving drugs that pharmaceutical companies saw as too risky or unprofitable to pursue. In 1999, as Glaxo was planning to abandon the malaria vaccine amid scepticism about markets, the Belgian unit doing the research made the unusual move of applying for a grant from the Gates Foundation. Since then, the foundation has poured some $107.6 million into developing the vaccine [The Wall Street Journal].
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Image: flickr / Julien Harneis