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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 19:23 GMT 20:23 UK


Race for malaria money

Malaria is one of the world's biggest killers

European scientists are facing a critical few weeks as they wait to learn if they will receive vital funding for research into a vaccine against malaria.

Without it, Europe could be out of the race to find the holy grail of science.

Malaria kills over a million people a year and infects one in 10 of the world's population.

Ninety per cent of all malaria cases are in sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds, although, if caught early, the mosquito-borne disease is curable.

According to experts, there are about eight serious candidates for vaccines currently under development.

Despite claims by a Colombian scientist to be on the point of developing an effective vaccine, most scientists believe the most serious candidates are from the US and Europe.

However, progress requires money.

European network

So European scientists in 10 countries have come together to form a network to lobby the European Union for more funding.

[ image: Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes]
Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes
They expect to learn in August whether they have been successful.

One member of the network, Professor Mike Hollingdale from Leeds University, said: "We are really nervous. This is a one-shot game. If we do not get the funding it will be a disaster for the research. It is a hugely critical time for Europe."

He added that it would be bad for science, as well as Europe, for the major research to be left in the hands of just one country.

Professor Hollingdale is working on a vaccine which tries to prevent the malaria parasite getting into the bloodstream where it rapidly spreads, causing disease and death.

Trials on one antigen conducted in Papua New Guinea and Gabon have shown promise, but Professor Hollingdale thinks the vaccine will have more chance of success if it is combined with other potential vaccines.

"It would act as the first stage, but we would then need more antigens to keep knocking the parasite down and keep hitting it until there was less and less to hit each time," he said.


Malaria has been an extremely difficult parasite to target, mainly because it is so effective at changing its form and resisting any attempts to eradicate it.

Outside Europe and the US, there have been other attempts to come up with an effective vaccine.

One which has drawn much publicity is that by charismatic Colombian scientist Dr Manuel Patarroyo.

Based in a large laboratory in Santa Fe de Bogota, he claims to be within two years of producing the world's first effective malaria vaccine.

But other scientists, who predict it will be at least five years before a vaccine is ready, are sceptical.

The reason is that Dr Patarroyo has done trials on his vaccine before which they say have not lived up to his initial claims.

Dr Patarroyo, whose work is funded by the Colombian government and audited by the World Health Organisation, has been working on a synthetically manufactured vaccine against the most deadly form of malaria for 17 years.

He says the first trials in the late 1980s were between 30 and 50% effective.

Since then he has been improving the vaccine.

However, other scientists dispute the efficacy of his original vaccine.

They point to studies in Gambia and Thailand which did not back evidence from Dr Patarroyo's own research.

US scientists reviewing the Thai trial in The Lancet in 1996 concluded the vaccine was not effective and should be dropped.

Dr Patarroyo accused the scientists of "arrogance" because he was from a developing country.

He said the trial had not used his own vaccine, but one manufactured in the US based on his recipe.

But other scientists say a trial on children in Gambia, with which Dr Patarroyo cooperated, used both his and the US-manufactured vaccine and showed similar poor results.

Commercial interests

Dr Patarroyo also claims he is not being taken seriously because of drug company "interests".

He declined to sell his 1980s vaccine to a drug company, instead donating the patent to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

However, the WHO has not been able to use it because of doubts about its effectiveness.

Despite the scepticism, scientists are keen to see if Dr Patarroyo's modified vaccine is the success he claims.

Professor Brian Greenwood of the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London says his work is "promising" and "could succeed".

Professor Hollingdale echoes these statements: "I look forward to seeing his research in a peer-reviewed scientific publication. We would particularly welcome research from the countries most affected by malaria."

However, he urged caution, saying Dr Patarroyo's vaccine needed to be tested extensively on humans.

"It is early days and there have been apparent breakthroughs in the past which have not been verified in humans."

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