Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Genetically-engineered malaria vaccine

Scientists have created a "weakened strain of the malaria parasite" that "will be used as a live vaccine against the disease." This type of vaccine "has proven successful in eradicating smallpox and controlling diseases such as flu and polio" (Walter). It has already been advantageous in animal studies, and it is hoped that it will prove successful when it enters human trials (slated for early next year).

Professor Alan Cowman, head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's Infection and Immunity division, said that "in developing the vaccine the research team...deleted two key genes in the Plasmodium falciparum parasite - which causes the form of malaria most deadly to humans" (Walter). "The deletions did not affect the parasites throughout most of the life cycle," but "by removing the genes the malaria parasite is halted during its liver infection phase, preventing it from spreading to the blood stream where it can cause severe disease and death" (Cowman; Walter). The photo to the left shows the parasitic cells during the liver stage (WT is normal).

The fact that the deletion of the genes "did not result in any observable defect during blood-stage replication...indicated that gene deletions did not affect the sexual stages of the parasite" (Cowman). "Although two genes have been deleted the parasite is still alive and able to stimulate the body's protective immune system to recognize and destroy incoming mosquito-transmitted deadly parasites" (Walter).

"Similar vaccines" have "been tested in mice and offered 100 per cent protection against malaria infection." Cowman "said it was hoped the vaccine would produce similar results in humans" (Walter). Whenever working with an attenuated [definition: weakened] strain of a disease, mutation is always a concern. Some people fear that the parasite will mutate to a viable form, thereby infecting individuals through the vaccine. "Professor Cowman said it was unlikely the weakened parasites used in the vaccine would regain their potency as the genes had been deleted from the genome and could not be recreated by the parasite" (Walter).

The fact that two essential genes have been deleted "make it extremely unlikely that the attenuated parasite vaccine could restore its capacity to multiply and lead to disease." The scientists believe that their "genetically attenuated parasite approach provides a safe and reproducible way of developing a whole organism malaria vaccine," which has the unique ability of being nearly 100% effective (Walter).

Cowman, Alan F. et al. "Preerythrocytic, live-attenuated Plasmodium falciparum vaccine candidates by design." 10 June 2009.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (2009, August 24). First Genetically-engineered Malaria Vaccine To Enter Human Trials. ScienceDaily.

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