Gold Coast scientists, led by Professor Michael Good AO at Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, have the scourge of malaria firmly in their sights, with a world-first vaccine proving successful in a pilot human trial.
Such is the faith of Professor Good in the vaccine that could save million of lives that he was the first human guinea pig, being injected with the vaccine by Gold Coast Health Director of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, Dr John Gerrard.
As a study participant, he had to step back from his usual research role in the “first-in-man” clinical trial.
“I wouldn’t ask people to do what I wouldn’t be prepared to do, and we couldn’t do this without the volunteers who give their time to us knowing they are helping further work towards a cure,” Professor Good says.
“I wasn’t nervous, because I knew I was in good hands. The primary issue is safety and we have all the controls in place. I was excited.”
Researchers have shown the world-first whole blood-stage malaria parasite vaccine PlasProtecT®, tested in collaboration with the Gold Coast University Hospital, is safe and induces an immune response in humans.
The project has been years in the making for researchers Professor Good who heads the Institute for Glycomics Laboratory of Vaccines for the Developing World, and Dr Danielle Stanisic who first started clinical trials in 2013 working with medical staff at Gold Coast University Hospital.
Dr Gerrard says ground breaking collaborative research of this type cemented the role of the Gold Coast University Hospital as a leading medical teaching and research centre in Australia. It demonstrates the unique collaborative environment within the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct, linking leading researchers with clinicians for such ground-breaking clinical trials.
“For the past four years, eight medical specialists have provided medical oversight for the volunteers participating in the trial,” Dr Gerrard says.
“Our focus in on safety – we’ve had minimal side-effects.
“We see Malaria regularly at the Gold Coast University Hospital and the idea that we would have a vaccine to prevent this terrible disease is extraordinary.”
Dr Stanisic explains that volunteers had to attend appointments at Griffith University’s Clinical Trials Unit every two days for a month, and were administered with the vaccine which consists of inactivated human malaria parasites that prevent them from growing and causing a malaria infection.
“Initially we showed that this vaccine was able to induce cross-species protection in pre-clinical trials,” she says.
“This is a world first. We are the first to put a vaccine like this into humans that has potential to protect against multiple strains and species of malaria.”
The novel vaccine is a very different approach to what other people are doing with malaria vaccine development.
There are millions of different strains of the malaria parasite, which is carried by mosquitoes and mutates, making the traditional approaches challenging.
Professor Good knew there had to be a better way than trying to chase down a moving target.
Rotary International was watching eagerly from the sidelines, ready to step in to help with fundraising and buoyed by their long-standing international fundraising efforts that have now all but eradicated polio.
“Now with the support of Rotary, we are at the verge of a much larger study where we give volunteers not one, but three doses of the vaccine followed by a challenge with the malaria parasite to see if the immune response we’ve induced by the vaccine can protect them from malaria,” says Professor Good.
“It has given us the impetus and the courage to go forward with a much larger study. We will have a proper three-stage trial.
“It is very difficult to completely eradicate a disease like malaria, but if successful this will significantly control it.”
Professor Good says that depending on fundraising efforts, the larger trial could begin within the year and take between six to 12 months. From there, they will expand into Africa, where malaria is rife, with a trial likely in Uganda – the home country of one of his own PhD students.
Around 100,000 people die of malaria in Uganda each year, mostly children – some 275 lives lost a day. It’s the leading cause of death in the country.
To get to those countries where malaria is endemic, researchers need $500,000 to take their project to the next level, and Rotary Clubs are now ramping up fundraising efforts to help them get there.
The Malaria Vaccine Project, officially launched by His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, has already raised $70,000.
His Excellency spoke of the project as representing Australian science and innovation at its very best, and of his faith in Rotary to reach the fundraising goals.
“Polio eradication is a testament to what Rotary can achieve. We’ll be most proud that this was done in our corner of the world, for the world,” Sir Peter told an excited audience of Rotarians, scientists and other supporters.
Fundraising efforts are being led by local Rotary clubs, with international efforts also targeting risk reduction in reducing the spread of mosquitoes.
Steve Carroll, Rotarians Against Malaria chairman for District 9670 who lost his daughter Michelle to malaria when she was 19 years old, says they are on a crusade to make malaria the new polio for Rotary.
“She was our baby and for the first couple of years we were just devastated until we found Rotary,” he says.
“People don’t think of malaria as being much because we’re in a nice safe country but if we can get this vaccine out there, just imagine all the lives it could save.”
Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and transmitted by certain species of mosquito found in tropical and sub-tropical regions. In 2015, there were approximately 214 million cases of malaria in the world and 438,000 deaths.
To donate visit the Malaria Vaccine Project fundraising page.