Brave volunteers contract malaria to aid vaccine development

2011 Malaria Survey team check houses for mosquito nets, Honiara, Solomon Islands. (Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr)

How many people would readily infect themselves with malaria in the name of science? Eight brave volunteers in Seattle have, as part of an ongoing research project at the Malaria Clinical Trials Center (MCTC) that aims to discover a vaccine for the deadly disease.

Fortunately, the participants of the study aren’t contagious. Malaria can only be transmitted through the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito, which isn’t found anywhere near Seattle. Besides, all of the participants – even those given a placebo instead of the experimental drug, DSM265 – are treated well before they start to become ill.

The mosquito-borne disease is caused by a parasite and results in flu-like symptoms which, left untreated, can lead to fatal complications. Malaria sickens 214 million people around the world every year, and kills more than 400,000, the vast majority being young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The MCTC, established by Fred Hutch and the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR), is one of many current and past research organizations dedicated to preventing and treating malaria. Despite many decades of intense research and development effort, there is currently no vaccine. One of the reasons why a preventive drug hasn’t yet been discovered is that the malaria parasite continues developing widespread resistance to antimalarial drugs, which has been documented in three of the five malaria species known to affect humans.

“The biggest barrier is the complexity of the parasite,” said Jim Kublin, the MCTC’s medical director, in an interview with Humanosphere. “It has over 5400 genes, and a life cycle that is very diverse that results in a lot of mutations and diversity within the parasite.”

“The ultimate preventive measure would be a highly effective malaria vaccine,” he added. “But we don’t have that yet.”

The current project in progress at the MCTC is the first trial of a novel antimalarial that could potentially be taken weekly rather than daily, and is among the first to use direct venous infection (DVI) to infect human volunteers. This is a step forward from the traditional method of having volunteers place their hands over a cup of infected mosquitoes, a process not as conducive to time-sensitive human trials.

Kublin says the hope is that the MCTC’s antimalarial will protect the health of pregnant women in malaria-endemic countries, and be able to prevent malaria-affected babies from being born prematurely or underweight.

A drug called co-trimoxazole is currently being used for that purpose among pregnant women with HIV. However, the DSM265 drug – which is first-in-class, making it very unlikely that the parasite in the field has developed any kind of resistance to that drug – could be more effective, says Kublin.

The malaria project needs 16 more participants who are willing to get malaria. Some of the study’s past participants have been incentivized by the pay or free doctor’s visits, but many of those up to the task are driven by altruism.

“This was an opportunity to be involved in something that’s a good cause,” said Molly Perry, one of the current participants of the study. “I feel like I’m doing something rather than just saying ‘I support that.’”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com