Malaria vaccine on the horizon after Leiden, Nijmegen Univ. research

After ten years of research and testing by the university hospitals in Leiden and Nijmegen, a malaria vaccine seems to be on the horizon. Tests on 19 human subjects in the Netherlands over the past six months seem to indicate a breakthrough. They were injected with genetically weakened malaria parasites and none of them got malaria, NOS reports.

According to infectiologist Meta Roestenberg of the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), this was a very special experiment. "Worldwide there has never been an experiment where malaria parasites were genetically weakened, put in an syringe and then used to vaccinate people", the researcher said to NOS. 

"Genetic modifying has been happening for decades, but not with parasites. We are the first to do so in Europe", Robert Sauerwein, physician and microbiologist at Radboud UMC in Nijmegen added. "In the US it has been tried, but then it went wrong. Test subjects got malaria then."

None of the 19 test persons in the Netherlands got malaria. One did get sick, but it turned out to be no more than a bad cold. 

The scientists at Radboud UMC and LUMC removed specific genes from the malaria parasite - including the gene that lets it multiply in humans - to weaken the parasite and use it as a vaccine. The ultimate goal is for the human immune system to learn from these weakened parasites how to ultimately fight off real malaria parasites. 

The researchers are very happy with the results of this first round of tests, but will only start celebrating after the new group of 48 volunteers have been tested in the spring. Should none of these new volunteers get malaria, a large experiment will start in Africa. 

According to Hans Clevers, genetic engineering expert and former president of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences, this research must definitely be taken very seriously. He believes that this malaria study is currently the biggest contender for leading to an effective vaccine. "If it succeeds, Dutch science will be put in the spotlight. Malaria is one of the biggest diseases. If the Netherlands succeeds in getting a vaccine, that is world news."