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John Hopkins malaria vaccine underway in Kenya

Search for Malaria vaccine stepped up

Talks are at an advanced stage between the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Kenya’s Institute of Primate Research (IPR) aimed at conducting collaborative research on a malaria vaccine.

According to Prof. Nirbhay Kumar who had paid a visit to Kenya to have a first hand look at what the country may offer in the anticipated collaborative work, IPR has excellent facilities to ensure the success of vaccine study, expected to begin in the next six months.

Particularly impressive, said Prof Kumar, was the non-human large primates that are now targeted in the next phase of the study aimed at combating Africa’s most debilitating disease, killing a child every other 30 seconds and leading million man-hour losses due to hospital admissions estimated in some countries like Kenya at 30 percent.

Prof. Kumar says that until now, tests in mice and low weight non-human primates, mainly Rhesus Monkeys (5-10 kg), have revealed promising results at 90 percent success rates during the study he has carried since 1982.

Prof Kumar’s visit was also aimed at talking to the private sector to see if he could be allowed to test the vaccine in large primates such as baboons, at 40 kg (close to man) would “be a milestone”.

This he said is aimed at ensuring that at its every new stage, the vaccine is not only immunogenic (doing what it is supposed to do), but that it is not toxic and it should at the same time elicit or induce effective immune responses.

He expressed confidence after a reconnaissance visit conducted by the IPR’s Acting Director, Dr. Thomas Kariuki that the two institutions will work together on the project aimed to lower malaria transmission from man to mosquito and then back to man.

According to Prof. Kumar, who has investigated molecular mechanisms involved in sexual-stage development of the parasite leading to malaria transmission for the last two decades, “finances to ensure the completion of the project would not be an issue as the project has been fully funded by a research project from the funds awarded by the John Hopkins Malaria Institute started with a generous USD100 million from an anonymous sources”.

Prof. Kumar’s vaccine, which is being developed by John Hopkins Malaria Research Institute (JHMRI) disrupts the sexual cycle of the malaria parasite in the mosquito midgut---preventing transmission of the malaria parasite from mosquitoes to humans.

He says the research is aimed at people who live in malaria endemic areas and is taking a community-based approach in research as in malaria infection, mosquitoes usually infect people living in close proximity to the source of primary infection.

Once the vaccine has been developed, he hopes to vaccinate proportions of communities infected, and as the mosquitoes feed on them, they pick up antibodies induced by the vaccines which will then prevent development of the parasite within the mosquitoes thereby break the cycle of transmission to man.

He adds that transmission-blocking vaccines can work either way effectively---blocking malaria transmission by preventing introduction of new malaria as well as be integrated in malaria control programme by combining the vaccines with treatment programmes.

Ongoing projects involve targeted gene disruption, high-throughput approaches for functional exploitation of Plasmodium and Anopheline genomes and identification of molecular components of the recombination machinery in malaria parasites.

Prof. Kumar hopes to start Phase 1 clinical trails of the vaccine in the next few years pending outcome of further evaluation in non-human primates.

Towards this end, field trail sites have been prepared in Zambia and other endemic countries elsewhere, to conduct trials in human beings.

He however believes that prompt and fast diagnosis, new candidate drugs for effective treatment and vaccines are all needed to combat the disease, said to inflict losses amounting to USD12.5 billion dollars to Africa’s GDP annually.

Half of the world’s population either lives in malaria endemic areas or are potentially exposed to malaria infection.

He says progress on malaria research has been impressive despite limited funding for the disease but says interests have shown certain increase over the years.

He however adds that although vaccines would provide the best option in the fight against malaria, other issues such as sanitation should be carried out in the control programmes.

While researchers carry on with their study, Prof. Kumar hopes that other partners in the war against malaria would be carrying out public health education programmes aimed at educating them on the spread of malaria.

JHMRI is developing training programmes towards this end and is working with scientists in Zimbabwe, Zambia and soon hopes to initiate similar programmes in Uganda.

He says agencies would also be required to come with access programmes to make them affordable to poorer populations.

About Prof Kumar

Like any other young, ambitious and budding medic focused to enter research field early 1970s, Kumar had many choices, given numerous beckoning opportunities.

But this was changed when he came down with malaria while doing his PhD studies in New Delhi, India, his country of origin whose 3-5 million people are at risk of malaria and at a time few people knew how to diagnose it.

“Someone would have really persuaded me to look into a disease for the developing countries, but having suffered malaria, I needed little persuasion from my mentors and I decided to do something, hoping to see fruition of his work during his life time”.

The decision however has now seen Prof. Kumar, a father of three girls, and husband of a scientist wife who is programme officer in the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Health (NIH), earn a Ranbaxy Science Foundation Award set up by Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited to encourage and reward Indian scientists around the world, for his outstanding research in Malaria last year.

Published: 2007-04-16

About the author or the publisher
Am a science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. I hold a post-grad diploma in journalism with a background in range management

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