A breakthrough in the search for a malaria vaccine

August 25, 2016

Virus photo
Photo by Akshay Krishnamurty from the University of Washington

When he was in his early 20s, Dr. David Rawlings came down with malaria several times while teaching grade school in Kenya.

“It’s a horrible infection,” said Dr. Rawlings, director of the Center for Immunity and Immunotherapies at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “I had a high fever, severe headaches, chills and I couldn’t leave my house for days. I was fortunate to have medications that stopped the infection, but malaria these days is resistant to most of these drugs.”

He recovered from his infections, and seeing his young students in Africa suffer from malaria drove him to become an immunologist to find a cure. Now, Dr. Marion Pepper’s lab at the University of Washington and Dr. Rawlings’ lab at Seattle Children’s revealed a major breakthrough in malaria immunology research that they described in a study published in the journal Immunity.

Dr. David Rawlings
Dr. David Rawlings

Vaccines mimic a given infection and trigger the body to produce antibodies to fight against it and stave off future infections. Most vaccines rely on particular immune cells — IgG memory B cells — to stimulate a strong immune response. The researchers, led by Dr. Pepper’s lab, discovered the power of an immune cell that had not been previously considered in vaccine development: IgM memory B cells. These cells are particularly effective at producing antibodies that fight malaria.

Dr. Pepper and Dr. Rawlings said this could help solve the riddle of why an effective malaria vaccine has been so elusive. The researchers are moving closer to studying the antibodies in blood samples directly from patients who have survived multiple malaria infections.

Children younger than 5 are among the most vulnerable to malaria, and the deadly side effects of severe anemia, hypoglycemia and cerebral malaria are seen more often in children. Even when children are able to make it through the cycles of the disease and the long recovery, they face disruption in their physical and social development. The researchers believe their findings will fundamentally shift scientific understanding of malaria vaccine development and could hold broader implications for vaccines.

Click here to read more from Seattle Children’s on how this research could help fight malaria and help so many around the world. (Tim Pfarr)


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