DENVER, Colorado— Hundreds of potential malaria vaccines have been rigorously tested over the years as researchers have tried to find a cure for the disease that kills over 600,000 people every year. None of the vaccines have stood up to the test thus far, but the most recent findings by Dr. Jonathan Kurtis at Brown University may change that by looking to blood proteins and providing a fresh approach that could prove effective in the fight against malaria.
Kurtis began his approach by looking at blood samples from Tanzanian children, some of whom were susceptible to infection and others who showed resistance. In these blood samples, Kurtis discovered a parasite protein called PfSEA-1, which aids the spread of malaria throughout the blood. He also discovered that children who had contracted the disease but were not seriously affected by it had PfSEA-1 antibodies in their blood, which prevented the parasite from gaining entry into more red blood cells. Kurtis remarked, “The shocking result was that children who had detectable antibodies to this antigen never got severe malaria – zero cases.”
Further backing for Kurtis’s findings came to light when researchers analyzed blood samples of 138 males in Kenya. The men with protein antibodies in their blood had 50 percent lower parasite levels than those who had antibody-free blood.
For malaria to circulate throughout the body, the disease has to move between red blood cells until the whole body is infected. The presence of the parasite protein, however, forces the body to produce the antibody needed to stop the spread. When the antibody is introduced to the system, it traps the parasite in its host cell, stopping the infection from spreading.
Instead of attempting to prevent the onset of the disease to begin with, as many vaccines have tried to do in the past, Kurtis has provided a potential solution that takes effect after infection. Stopping the disease in its tracks once it enters the body has the potential to reduce the extreme symptoms characteristic of severe malaria cases that often end in death.
As of now, the vaccine is in the early development stages, but the experiments are promising. After vaccinating five groups of mice with the protein, researchers found that the vaccinated mice had higher survival rates than mice that did not receive the vaccine. Further testing on mice will continue in addition to more research, but the hope is that eventually people will receive the vaccine and respond with positive results.
Kurtis has made a point of the unlikely outcome that the vaccine will be “the be-all and end-all for malaria prevention.” But even minimizing severity and extending life expectancy for those infected would be a huge step for malaria research.
With such a high fatality rate, the effects of malaria run deep in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where infection is concentrated and poverty levels are high. When malaria infects a community, it often serves to halt economic development for the near future, weakening the work force and limiting productivity, subsequently trapping the community in an impoverished state. Even if Kurtis’s developments regarding blood proteins don’t cure malaria, they could provide better living conditions for those infected and boost economies to minimize future susceptibility to malaria. Every positive development in the search for a malaria cure brings more hope for a malaria-free world.