School of Medicine Receives Multi-Million-Dollar Grant to Test Malaria Vaccine in Africa

For immediate release: October 19, 2005

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Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have been awarded $4.9 million from the National Institutes of Health to test the safety and effectiveness of a new malaria vaccine in children. In partnership with the University of Bamako in Mali, West Africa, the researchers will test the vaccine in children in Mali over the next five years. The vaccine was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Malaria is a mosquito-borne parasitic disease that kills more than 5,000 people every day, 90 percent of whom are children in Africa under the age of 5,” says Christopher Plowe, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of the malaria section at its Center for Vaccine Development. “The malaria problem is getting worse because the parasites are developing resistance to the drugs we use to treat the infection. That's why it's so important to develop a safe, effective vaccine.”

The Center for Vaccine Development has conducted two previous clinical trials in Africa to test malaria vaccines in healthy adults, working closely with Professor Ogobara Doumbo, Director of the Malaria Research and Training Center at the University of Bamako and his team. The results of those studies have paved the way for the first trials of these vaccines in children.

Early next year, Dr. Plowe, Professor Doumbo and their colleagues plan to start the first small trial in fewer than 100 children in the town of Bandiagara in northeast Mali. There, traditional healers previously used incantations and herbs to treat severe malaria, but have been persuaded in recent years to refer children with malaria symptoms to the local district hospital. The children are treated with antimalarial medications and 90-95 percent of them survive the deadly illness but continue to get sick from malaria repeatedly throughout their childhood. “Partial immunity to malaria does develop naturally,” says Dr. Plowe. “We hope that a vaccine will speed up this process so that young children can have protective immunity without the risk of dying from malaria in the first several years of life.”

If the first trial demonstrates that the vaccine is safe in children and that it can stimulate antibody responses, a larger trial with several hundred children will be conducted to find out whether the vaccine can effectively prevent malaria. Plowe, Doumbo and their team will also investigate how the vaccine interacts with malaria parasites and the children's immune system. “There are many different strains or clones of malaria, and the vaccine is based on just one of these,” says Dr. Plowe. “We don't know if the vaccine will prevent all types of malaria or just those that are genetically similar to the vaccine strain.”

Detailed molecular analyses of the malaria parasites that infect people before and after immunizations will be performed in laboratories in Mali and in Baltimore. “We certainly hope that this vaccine will be highly effective and long-lasting,” says Dr. Plowe. “But if the parasite is able to outsmart us through genetic mutations, as it has done in developing resistance to drugs, these molecular studies may help us to beat the malaria parasite at its own game.”

The Army Malaria Vaccine Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, a division of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, is the most active malaria vaccine development program in the world. With industry and NGO partners, WRAIR scientists have developed and evaluated more than 20 candidate malaria vaccines.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 40 years. The USAID Malaria Vaccine Development Program has been a major supporter of malaria vaccine development since 1968.

GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals (GSK Biologicals), one of the world's leading vaccine manufacturers, is located in Rixensart, Belgium and employs more than 1,300 research scientists. In 2004, GSK distributed more than 1.5 billion doses of vaccines to 168 countries in both the developed and developing world.

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