Can we predict whether a vaccine protects against malaria?

19 May 2020 | Back to News, Publications and Annual Reports



Unfortunately, a fully protective vaccine against malaria is still lacking. The most advanced vaccine provides protection in some individuals, but in others it is not effective. We don't know why. New research has provided more insight into this.

Every year, malaria kills about 400,000 people, especially children below the age of 5 years. This is much more than the number of people who have so far died from the coronavirus. Enough reason for researchers to also work hard on the development of a vaccine against malaria.

Malaria vaccines - variable results

The most advanced malaria vaccine only protects about a third of the population. Other potential vaccines which offer better protection in experimental settings have been developed. Whether these new vaccines are ultimately fully protective in areas with malaria remains to be investigated.

Malaria vaccines - which people do they protect?

Why is it that one person can and the other cannot be protected by vaccination? And can we predict this? If we know more about this, we can develop improved vaccines / vaccination schedules. These are important questions, which is why scientists from Europe and Africa teamed up to search for answers. BPRC researchers also participated in this study.

White blood cell activity

To find the answer, they studied the activities of white blood cells. With the help of these cells, the body can harness itself against invaders, such as the malaria parasite. The researchers compared the activities of the cells of people who were protected by vaccination with the white blood cells of people who were not protected.

Protection predicted

After performing a lot of computer calculations, they discovered a pattern. It turned out that the cells of protected people displayed a different activity than cells of unprotected people. Even before vaccination, differences could already be observed on the basis of which protection by vaccination could be predicted.

How to improve vaccines against malaria

If this is correct, then we know what type of response is needed for a vaccine to provide protection and in which people this will be effective. New vaccine strategies should then aim to provoke this type of activity. But first, further extensive testing is needed in order to confirm that this predictive model is correct.

The study described above was published in the leading journal Science Translational Medicine.