By Lydia Hales
Burnet Institute research has revealed how antibodies can track down and ‘tag’ malaria in the bloodstream, helping the immune system identify and then destroy the malaria parasites.
The finding advances the understanding of malaria immunity and is being applied to creating a vaccine.
Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites, spread to humans through infected-mosquito bites. According to the World Health Organization, one child dies every minute from the disease in Africa.
The study was in collaboration with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and involved following Kenyan children of different ages and levels of immunity over a period of time – though any children who became infected were treated.
Head of Burnet Institute’s Centre for Biomedical Research and co-author of the research, Professor James Beeson, said while it is known that people can eventually become immune to malaria after many infections, they wanted to understand how that immunity develops.
“We had an idea that antibodies, the proteins produced by the immune system to fight infection, and white blood cells worked together to effectively protect people from malaria. Our research showed antibodies stick to malaria parasites in the bloodstream, signalling to white blood cells to destroy them,” Professor Beeson explained.
“These antibodies appear to protect children from malaria and increased with age and exposure to malaria, and were boosted with re-infection.”
Professor Beeson said it might take up to 20 or so infections to naturally build up this level of immunity.
He said one strategy would be to create a vaccine that can quickly produce this type of immune response in children, to prime the immune system to fight malaria when infected and prevent children from becoming sick with malaria.
Aside from serious health risks for infected children, Professor Beeson said malaria can also be devastating in a social and economic sense, in relation to costs of treatment and children missing school while sick, and restricting the economic development of communities.
“Despite recent advances in malaria control and prevention globally, it remains a huge burden and a vaccine is desperately needed,” he said.
“We are currently studying experimental vaccines to identify those that produce a strong and effective immune response.”