Precisely in the 2019 World Immunization Week, on 23 April, the malaria research community announced hopeful news (in Dutch). The news marked the roll-out of a large-scale pilot with the first malaria vaccine. ‘The vaccine should provide partial protection to children in Malawi against the deadly parasite.’
According to the news report, the vaccine - named RTS,S - trains the immune system to attack the dangerous malaria parasite. Kate O'Brien, Director of Immunisation and Vaccines at the World Health Organization told the BBC that ‘this is a landmark moment for immunisations, malaria control, and public health.’
Crucial role for laboratory animals
The news of the malaria vaccine was announced - coincidentally, but nonetheless ironically - the day before the World Day for Laboratory Animals. Laboratory animals have in fact played a crucial role in the development of RTS,S. ‘The first trials that have now resulted in the RTS,S vaccine date back to the 1980s in the United States of America,’ explains Jan Langermans, Deputy Director of BPRC. Following the first promising results in humans in 2009, a larger-scale study has now been rolled out. The vaccine will be administered to 120,000 children under the age of two firstly in Malawi, followed by Ghana and Kenya. O'Brien can justifiably say that this is a landmark moment.
New vaccine candidates and potentially new medicines
Langermans points out that laboratory animals play an important role not only in preventive vaccines but also in the development of new medicines for the treatment of malaria. BPRC is actively engaged in the fight against malaria. ‘Our research has led to promising new vaccine candidates and to potentially new medicines. We work not only with primate models for this purpose, but additionally, and preferably, where possible, with alternatives we have developed in the form of cell cultures.’
The hard facts
Every year, nearly half a million people die of the most severe form of malaria, which is particularly prevalent among the poorest population groups in the world. In addition, there is another form of malaria which tends to be less fatal, but does often cause severe illness. This widespread form of malaria (‘vivax’) causes 14 million cases of illness every year. The culprits that cause malaria are parasites, which are carried by mosquitoes. Read more about the hard facts of malaria here (in Dutch).