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Malaria is one of the most devastating diseases in the developing world, but it has no viable, effective vaccine. Today, researchers are announcing a new vaccine that blocks malaria when given at high doses.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that based on one early laboratory trial, there's optimism about this new prospect. But it still has a long way to go before it can be used effectively worldwide.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: According to the World Health Organization, there were roughly 220 million cases of malaria in 2010, almost all of them occurring in the poorest nations on Earth. The pounding fever makes many people unable to walk, never mind work. And in Africa alone, malaria claims hundreds of thousands of lives each year. For decades, finding an effective malaria vaccine has been the holy grail of tropical medicine.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Parasites like malaria have been really very confounding in our ability to develop very good vaccines that are highly effective.
BEAUBIEN: Dr. Anthony Fauci is the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. He says the results of a phase one clinical trial of the new vaccine, which are being published today by Science magazine, are quite impressive. Phase one studies generally test whether a new drug or product is safe. This trial, however, showed that this vaccine was not only safe, but among the six people given a full dose, it completely protected them against malaria.
FAUCI: That's very good, and in some respects, it's true to say it's unprecedented. But you have to immediately say remember, that number is a rather small number. Six is a small number.
BEAUBIEN: Fauci says the vaccine is going to have to be tested on a much larger scale, and he says there are still many questions about whether it can provide long-term protection against malaria. This vaccine is different from earlier attempts at a malaria vaccine in that it functions by getting certain immune cells to attack the parasite directly rather than by creating a traditional anti-body response.
STEPHEN HOFFMAN: What we are doing is very different from what's happened before, and I was involved with what's happened before for many, many years.
BEAUBIEN: Stephen Hoffman is the CEO of the Rockville, Maryland, company Sanaria, which developed the inoculation. He says rather than try to isolate one part of the malaria parasite and get the human body to develop a defense against it, his new vaccine uses a weakened form of the entire parasite as the vaccine.
HOFFMAN: We have demonstrated, for the first time in the history of malaria, that one can completely protect individuals against malaria-infected mosquitoes.
BEAUBIEN: One drawback of the new vaccine is that it has to be injected intravenously, making it complicated for mass campaigns. Field tests will also have to see how well it responds to different strains of the parasite. Nevertheless, an official from the World Health Organization's Malaria Control Program in Geneva calls the results released today interesting and an important scientific achievement. Sanaria is moving quickly to conduct larger scale trials of the product in Africa. A study in Tanzania is slated to start in just six weeks. Hoffman at Sanaria says if things go well with the upcoming trials, the vaccine may be available for widespread use by late 2017 or early 2018.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.