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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 00:07 GMT
Hopes rise for malaria vaccine
The malaria parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes
Scientists involved in the trial of a vaccine against malaria say they are optimistic they can defeat the disease.

Early tests of the vaccine showed it could provide complete protection for some people.

The scientists have now launched trials in the Gambia, Kenya and the UK to see if the vaccine is as effective in the wider population.

We have shown that we can completely protect people against malaria

Daniel Webster
There are over 300 million cases of malaria around the world each year and it claims more than one million lives.

More than 90% of cases are reported in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is the main cause of death and a major threat to children.

There is currently no effective vaccine against the disease.

Immune response

This latest vaccine, developed by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, is different to most of its predecessors.

Professor Adrian Hill and colleagues have developed a vaccine which stimulates a different part of the body's immune system.

In early trials, the vaccine provided complete protection to some people and partial protection for others.

Further small scale trials in Africa have also been promising. Larger trials are now under way.

"Our approach is fundamentally different to all of the vaccines out there on the market in that we are trying to activate a part arm of the immune response that involves cells rather than antibodies," said Professor Hill.

"This is a very new approach. We don't have any vaccines available that do this.

"However, due to fairly fundamental advances in immunology in the past 10 or 20 years it's now possible to make white blood cells particularly the T-cells increase in number after vaccination.

"That may be a new and useful approach to controlling malaria."

Vaccines ineffective

A malaria vaccine has eluded scientists not least because the parasite which carries the disease evolves rapidly and can become resistant to drugs.

But Daniel Webster, who is also working on the Oxford project, believes that scientists are now close to making a breakthrough.

"I very firmly believe a malaria vaccine is feasible. We have shown that we can completely protect people against malaria.

"Vaccines can generate an immune response that protects people from malaria. We just need to keep plugging away until we get a regime and vaccine strategy that protects 100% of people from malaria.

"The concept is there so I am very optimistic it will happen."

Jonathon Austyn, professor of immunology at Oxford, believes the scientific technique behind the vaccine could also help to fight other diseases.

"This is a very exciting development because it's not just applicable to malaria but to other sorts of diseases," he said.

"This new approach actually stimulates T cells that can attack the parasites or at least the cells that contain the parasites before they multiply and go on to the next stage in their life cycle.

"The new approach involves immunisation with genetically engineered viruses and offers hope for protection from malaria and potentially many other diseases."

This story is featured in the radio programme Health Matters on the BBC World Service.

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See also:

22 Nov 02 | Health
02 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
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