November 9, 2012 |

Director comments on malaria vaccine results

Man in white lab coat looks at a sample through a microscope.
Researchers in seven African countries are involved in testing the most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate. Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.

It’s great to be in Cape Town, South Africa, to see the results from our ongoing late-stage trial of a malaria vaccine presented here—in Africa. In the 1980s, I spent time working with scientists in Mali to establish a center focused on malaria vaccine research. It would have felt like science fiction then to think that a malaria vaccine candidate would be in a pivotal phase 3 trial, would successfully meet its efficacy objectives, and would be presented in a prestigious African scientific conference.

Malaria vaccine development has been my professional passion for more than 25 years, and it’s one of the reasons joining the Malaria Vaccine Initiative team at PATH felt so right. Today, eight months after I started at PATH, the MVI team is marking another milestone on the road to a first malaria vaccine. We have results from the ongoing trial of the RTS,S malaria vaccine candidate, the vaccine that is furthest along in the development process worldwide.

These results show that RTS,S reduces episodes of malaria by one-third in babies (aged 6 to 12 weeks when they receive the first of three injections of RTS,S), compared to those receiving a different vaccine that doesn’t target malaria. Last year, we reported results in the older age group in the trial, children aged 5 to 17 months at the time of the first injection. In this older age group, we saw the number of malaria episodes cut in half among those receiving RTS,S versus a control vaccine.

Another tool in the malaria battle

In discussing this news earlier today with reporters, I was reminded of some important points about where we stand in the battle against malaria. First, the bednets, drugs, and other tools already being used against the disease are having a significant impact on the burden of malaria around the world. A vaccine such as RTS,S would be used in addition to, rather than as a replacement for, what we’re already using to stop malaria.

Second, I was reminded that developing a vaccine takes perseverance. RTS,S, for example, has been almost 30 years in the making. And as I reminded those who called into the news briefing this morning, developing a vaccine against a human parasite is a really, really hard thing to do. It has never been done before in part because we are fighting a wily parasite with a life cycle that moves between the human and the mosquito host.

In the testing stage

With RTS,S, we’re at the stage of development in which the vaccine candidate is being tested in more than 15,000 infants and children who live in places where malaria is a serious problem. The tests generate the data used by regulators to decide whether or not the vaccine candidate should be approved for use.

This is the largest malaria vaccine trial ever conducted, and it’s being carried out to the highest international standards. By the time the final results are available in 2014, it will have been more than five years since the first child received RTS,S in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, one of the eleven study sites in seven African countries where this trial is taking place.

Partnerships to stop malaria

I was also reminded this morning of the importance of partnerships. In the malaria field, we need only look to the achievements of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership in energizing the field, and of the Global Fund and US President’s Malaria Initiative in working with countries to make available tools accessible to those who need them.

At MVI, we know that milestones are reached through collaborations and partnerships. The RTS,S project brings together one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, African research centers in seven countries, and partners from US government agencies as well as research institutions across Europe. Like so many PATH projects, this collaborative initiative is built on the idea of bringing together the unique power of the private sector in product development and the field expertise and abilities of a nonprofit partner to create opportunities that otherwise would not exist.

By the time this blog is posted, it will be the end of the day in Cape Town. For me, it will have been a good day. As a doctor and scientist, I will have more information to use and share with others—data that can be used to help determine how, in addition to other malaria control measures, a malaria vaccine might be best used in the future to help stop this deadly disease. We still have miles to go on this journey, and more data to collect and analyze, but today is a good day in Africa.

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  • Dr. David Kaslow is vice president of Essential Medicines and director of the Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access at PATH.