Australian mosquito on leaf

Malaria vaccine could save 500,000 lives a year

A malaria vaccine being developed by James Cook University researcher Professor Denise Doolan has the potential to save half a million lives a year.

Her research is being supported by grants from the European Union and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

 “Nearly half the world’s population is at risk from malaria,” says Professor Doolan. “But it’s one of many diseases – particularly in developing tropical economies – that impose a double burden of both infectious and chronic disease. For malaria alone, that’s more than 200 million clinical cases each year.”

While malaria is the immediate target of Professor Doolan’s team, the aim is to establish an approach to vaccine design and to diagnostics development that will be applicable to other conditions such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B and influenza, she says.

As she works on the vaccine, Professor Doolan is also examining the human immune response to the malaria parasite, as well as screening the whole genome of the parasite itself.

“One part of this work is pathogen-based. It involves sifting through the several thousand proteins expressed by the parasite, looking for those that trigger protective responses from our immune system, and so could be candidate antigens for vaccine development.

“The other line of inquiry is human-centred. It involves looking – at the molecular level – at the immune response of otherwise well people who have been experimentally exposed to malaria, and identifying which proteins their protective T-cells are actively targeting.

“The aim is to develop a data set that will help us accurately identify promising proteins, which we can then investigate as potential vaccines.”