Programmed Proteins Could Hold Key to Low-Cost Malaria Vaccine

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Low-Cost Malaria Vaccine

It seems that people living in tropical regions all around the world may finally get their wish for an inexpensive, effective malaria vaccine, at least if Israel’s Weismann Institute of Science has anything to say about it. In a recently published paper, scientists at the institute claimed to have developed a new approach that could be the key to creating a new malaria vaccine that is both cheap to use and doesn’t require refrigeration. If true, the vaccine has the potential to be a game changer, resulting in millions and millions of saved lives.

Malaria has been one of the most studied diseases in the world, and yet, despite millions of dollars spent on research, it has seemed for many years that an effective vaccine was still a long ways off. This began to change a few years ago when GlaxoSmithKline and PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative developed the RTS,S vaccine. However, the problem is that this vaccine has only a 26 to 50 percent success rate and is also expensive to produce, which is why the new research has been met with so much fanfare.

The Problem with Malaria

Hundreds of millions of people contract malaria on a yearly basis, and the parasite is responsible for around 500,000 deaths every year—most of them young children. One of the major reasons why science has so far been unsuccessful at creating an effective vaccine to reduce these numbers is that the parasite tends to change its shape and structure, which makes it much harder to target using conventional methods. However, the biggest reason that an effective malaria vaccine has yet to be created mostly has to do with the structure of the proteins that make up the parasite.

Although there are numerous ways to make vaccines, one of the more successful ways involves using one of the proteins from the disease-causing organism. By injecting this simple protein into the body, it allows the immune system to detect and prepare itself against the disease-causing threat, without actually causing the person to become ill.

The problem is that any of the malaria parasite’s proteins that would be suitable for this purpose are highly unstable at high temperatures such as those present in the tropical areas where malaria is most prevalent. This means that any vaccine would obviously need to be refrigerated to prevent it from breaking down due to the heat.

One such protein is RH5, which the parasite uses to attach itself to the body’s red blood cells. Although this protein has been extensively tested for use as a vaccine by other researchers, Dr. Sarel Fleishman and researcher Adi Goldenzweig found a novel way to stabilize RH5 through using a ‘protein design’ software the institute had been developing.

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Using Computer Software to ‘Program’ the Proteins

One major problem with using proteins as a vaccine is that, as the immune system is continually attacking the proteins, they tend to mutate with each new generation. This is where the computer software comes in, as it allows the scientists to track these mutations to create a database of all of the known ways that these protein sequences are configured.

The scientists then took this information and used it to create a synthetic version of RH5 that contained 18 of these different mutations. The result? A malaria protein that is stable at temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

Not Only Stable, But Inexpensive to Produce

Another major problem with using natural proteins to create vaccines is that they can only be produced in a lab by using large, expensive cellular systems, which means that that it’s basically impossible for the resulting vaccine not to be prohibitively expensive. However, by using synthetic ‘programmed’ proteins instead of natural ones, the researchers have also shown that it’s possible to create an inexpensive vaccine for malaria and other diseases.

Although it seems that this particular vaccine is still a long way from being put into use, it may hold hope for helping to reduce the number of deaths malaria causes each year. Of course, first they have to determine whether or not the vaccine is actually safe, which is obviously not always the easiest thing to do.

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