New approach to malaria vaccine revealed by Oxford researchers

Image caption Malaria is caused by parasites injected into the blood by infected mosquitoes

A potential new malaria vaccine has shown promise in animal studies, according to research.

An Oxford University team is to start safety trials in human volunteers after lab tests showed the vaccine works against all strains of the parasite.

UK scientists recently found the route malaria uses to enter blood cells.

They hope to target this pathway in a new approach to developing a vaccine against malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year.

Several potential malaria vaccines are already being tested in clinical trials; although no vaccine has yet been licensed for use.

Early clinical trials in Africa suggest a vaccine known as RTS,S appears to protect about half of people vaccinated from malaria.

While these results are encouraging, some scientists believe a more effective vaccine is needed to fight the disease.

One possibility is to exploit a recently-discovered potential weakness in the parasite's life cycle.

A team at the Sanger Institute found in November that a single receptor on the surface of red blood cells and a substance known as "PfRh5" on the parasite are crucial to the success of malaria in invading blood cells.

Early lab tests suggest a vaccine against the protein may prove effective, at least in animals.

Dr Sandy Douglas is a Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Training Fellow from the University of Oxford and first author on the study, published in the journal, Nature Communications.

He told the BBC: "We have found a way of making antibodies that kill all different strains of malaria parasites. This is still early phase research in animals. The next step is to do clinical trials in people."

If safety tests of the vaccine prove successful, clinical trials in patients could begin within the next two to three years, says the Oxford team.

Dr Gavin Wright, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said recent findings on how the malaria parasite invades red blood cells were unexpected.

Dr Wright, a co-author on both studies, added: "It revealed what we think is the parasite's Achilles heel in the way it invades our cells and provided a target for potential new vaccines."

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