30 Apr 2014
By Ashley Birkett, Director, PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative

The intersection this April of World Malaria Day and World Immunization Week represents an opportunity to highlight progress in global efforts to add vaccines—among the most powerful tools for health—to the fight against malaria. Here at the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), the last few years have clearly demonstrated that any impact on these efforts will rely heavily on a wide range of public-private collaborations and on continuing investments by the donor community.

Partnering inside and outside the malaria research community

Thanks to strong collaborations and robust investments, we at MVI continue to see major advances toward the goals laid out in the Malaria Vaccine Technology Roadmap—a blueprint for developing malaria vaccines that includes the 2015 landmark of licensing a first-generation malaria vaccine for use alongside existing malaria control measures.

Along these lines, a five-year clinical trial of the most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate will yield final results by the end of this year or early 2015. The RTS,S trial is the result of an innovative collaboration involving MVI, GSK, and research centers in Africa. It’s a collaboration that has also seen the upgrading of clinical trial and research capacity in locations across Africa, as well as decisions by several African countries to put mechanisms in place that are meant to facilitate informed decision-making on possible use of a first malaria vaccine.

Looking ahead, a wide range of partners both inside and outside the malaria research community will be crucial to our effort to realize the next set of malaria vaccine development goals. The Malaria Vaccine Technology Roadmap (launched in 2006 and updated in 2013), calls for developing more effective second-generation vaccines that take into account the malaria community’s aims of progressive elimination and eventual eradication of the parasitic disease. Even as we await important data on RTS,S, MVI and partners are pressing ahead with a multi-pronged strategy to take the field further—in line with the Roadmap vision.

Assessing the potential of different approaches

Key elements of our forward-looking strategy include supporting the development of other vaccine approaches that either build on progress with RTS,S to date or take different paths toward immunization. One of the valuable lessons we’ve learned along the way is vaccine developers’ need for new targets on the malaria parasite. As such, several of our projects focus on identifying new antigens that could trigger an immune response once the parasite enters a person’s bloodstream or infects liver cells.

In addition, MVI and partners are studying approaches designed to interrupt the cycle of parasite transmission from humans to mosquitoes. These would aim to prevent the parasite from infecting the mosquito. While a vaccine with this approach would offer no immediate direct benefit to the individual receiving it, it could potentially benefit a whole community by significantly limiting the spread of infection.

More than anything, this year’s intersection of World Malaria Day and World Immunization Week allows us to reflect on how far we’ve come, the challenges that remain, and the opportunities available to us. We could not have come this far without strategic collaborations and investments. We look forward to a wide range of new and innovative partnerships and continuing investments in malaria vaccine research and development.