Discovery may lead to pregnancy-specific malaria vaccine

Burnet Institute

31 October, 2012

A maternal health clinic on the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

Burnet Institute researchers have discovered how pregnant women’s immune systems respond to malaria, which may lead to a long-lasting pregnancy-specific vaccine.

The research, led by Dr Freya Fowkes, Head of Malaria and Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Burnet, found that the immune responses to different malaria proteins in pregnancy wane relatively quickly, so may not be effective in providing long-term protection against malaria.

“There is hope though – we also found that the immune response to pregnancy-specific proteins lasts for many years, which can help fight-off malaria infections in the placenta during pregnancy,” Dr Fowkes said.

“These findings are a major advance in the quest for a vaccine against malaria, they suggest that a long-lasting, pregnancy-specific vaccine could be developed to protect pregnant women and their babies against the devastating consequences of malaria.”

Malaria produces particular proteins that enable it to stick to the placenta and accumulate which impacts on the development of the baby and health of the mother.

Low birth weight is another major outcome for malaria-infected pregnant women and is responsible for about 800,000 infant deaths a year.

It’s estimated that about 125 million women living in malaria endemic areas become pregnant every year, further highlighting the urgent need for a vaccine.

This research is a world-first and the largest study of the immune response to infectious diseases during pregnancy. It was carried out in the North West border of Thailand, in Karen refugee women from Burma.

It involved collaborators at the Shokolo Malaria Research Unit, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the University of Melbourne. It was published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The Burnet Institute will join governments, international business representatives and non-government organisations at this week’s Malaria 2012: Saving Lives in the Asia Pacific conference in Sydney, hosted by the Australian Government through AusAID.

CLICK HERE to watch an ABC TV News story on the research.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Freya J.I. Fowkes

Deputy Program Director, Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health




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