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MSU group develops new malaria vaccine

September 27, 2011

A new vaccine developed by an MSU research group shows promise in protecting against malaria, a potentially fatal disease that effects millions of people each year.

Andrea Amalfitano, Osteopathic Heritage Foundations endowed professor of pediatrics, microbiology and molecular genetics, led the research group composed of graduate students and postdoctorate students in the multiyear research project.

“What we’re trying to develop, using a vaccine approach, is a way to trigger a person’s immune system to fight (malaria) before it gets a chance to develop problems in that person,” Amalfitano said.

The team has engineered the vaccine in a way that generates a stronger immune response to the malaria portion of the vaccine, he said.

Malaria is a parasitic infection spread by mosquitoes that attacks and infects the red blood cells in the body, said Karl Seydel, assistant professor of internal medicine.

Once someone is infected, the disease can have a wide spectrum of clinical outcomes, he said.
“It can hide in your body without you knowing you have it,” Seydel said.

“The far right end of the spectrum — the worst — is cerebral malaria, where it goes to the brain and can cause you to (become) comatose.”

The vaccine still is in the trial stage, but it has shown positive results in early tests, Amalfitano said.
“(The tests are) showing stronger defense (against malaria),” he said.

“The types of responses the vaccine is generating look pretty good relative to what other vaccines have accomplished in other models.”

Nathaniel Schuldt, a graduate student on the research team, said creating a successful vaccine to defend against malaria would be an incredible discovery.

“It would be enormous. Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet,” Schuldt said.
“It kills about a million people a year and infects about 500 million a year.”

More than one-third of the world’s population lives in areas where the malaria virus is present, Seydel said.

“Africa has the most of the disease burden with some in Southeast Asia,” he said.

“By far, the majority of deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Malaria was eradicated in the U.S. in the 1950s, he said.

MSU has 40 study abroad programs in Africa each year, said Cindy Chalou, associate director of the Office of Study Abroad.

The risk of malaria exposure depends on the area of Africa and time of year, but it has affected traveling students in the past, Chalou said.

“We have students who do not take their medication, and we try to enforce the fact that (following) whatever prescribed regiment is absolutely critical,” she said.

“Students (who show sign of malaria) are usually hospitalized immediately.”

The next step for the new vaccine is to continue running small scale tests and analysis before eventually moving on to clinical trials, Amalfitano said.

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“It’s promising because the platform is certainly one that could be scaled up for use in humans,” he said.

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