Pharmacology: Complete protection against malaria

The prospects for an effective vaccine for malaria are considerably better since the discovery that healthy volunteers can be fully protected against malaria. This exciting news is reported in the influential New England Journal of Medicine by malaria researchers from the Medical Centre of the Radboud University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Malaria is one of the most deadly infections in the world. More than a million people die from it every year, mostly in Africa. The victims are predominantly young children who have yet to develop protective immunity to the disease. The search for a vaccine that stimulates the immune system sufficiently well to confer strong protection against the malaria parasite has been going on for decades already. The availability of such a vaccine would represent a huge breakthrough in the fight against malaria, but none exists yet.

In a matter of only a few months, the researchers in Nijmegen, led by Professor Robert Sauerwein, managed to successfully induce full protection against malaria in healthy Dutch volunteers. They were infected with malaria parasites while taking a course of the malaria drug chloroquine. In this way the parasites induced a strong immune response but the volunteers did not get sick. After a few months their immunity was tested and proven to be highly effective: they were given another infection and none became sick. The research team also revealed that a powerful group of immune cells, so-called multifunctional T cells, play an important role in this protective response.

We now have the proof that it is possible to induce complete protection against malaria efficiently. The findings will be an important guide on the path towards the development of a new and much needed vaccine for malaria.

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