Scientists have developed a drug that protects against malaria infection in mice, paving the way for a human vaccine that works by targeting the specific protein that the parasites use to evade the immune system.
Malaria is the second leading cause of infectious disease worldwide, and took more than a half million lives in 2013, according to the study published in the journal Nature Communications.
To date, no completely effective vaccine exists, and infected individuals only develop partial immunity against disease symptoms.
In a prior study, researchers described a unique protein produced by malaria parasites, Plasmodium macrophage migration inhibitory factor (PMIF), which suppresses memory T cells, the infection-fighting cells that respond to threats and protect the body against reinfection.
In both models, the vaccine protected against reinfection. As a final test, the researchers transferred memory T cells from the immunised mice to "naive" mice never exposed to malaria. Those mice were also protected.
The research shows, first, that PMIF is critical to the completion of the parasite life cycle because it ensures transmission to new hosts, said the scientists, noting it also demonstrates the effectiveness of the anti-PMIF vaccine.
"To our knowledge, this has never been shown using a single antigen in fulminant blood-stage infection," said Bucala.
"The vaccine would be used in children so that they would already have an immune response to this particular malaria product, and when they became infected with malaria, they would have a normal T cell response, clear the parasite, and be protected from future infection," he said.
The researchers also noted that because the PMIF protein has been conserved by evolution in different malaria strains and targets a host pathway, it would be virtually impossible for the parasite to develop resistance to this vaccine.
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