Melbourne scientists part of Gates Foundation US $21 million hunt for malaria therapy


Scientists at the The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) are part of international teams that have won some of the world's largest grants to develop treatment for malaria.

The scientists will use technology developed at the WEHI to genetically manipulate the malaria parasite: a crucial step in the creation of a vaccine. These genetically altered parasites, once created, will be tested on volunteers from the US Army to determine whether they boost their immune responses to the malaria parasite.

This will be the first time that an altered version of the malaria parasite will be used to stimulate immunity against the disease. The aim is to boost the immune system in a similar way to how the altered polio bacteria triggers immunity against polio. Such information will assist in the eventual development of the world's first malaria vaccine.

The announcement of the research and grant was made at the start of the first Conference of the ARC/NH&MRC Network for Parasitology, held at WEHI on 7 and 8 July. The Network is a national approach to developing technologies and research collaborations regarding issues such as bio-security and the development of therapies and vaccines for major parasitic diseases.

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has been selected for grant offers of US$21 million for two prestigious Grand Challenges in Global Health projects. Set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Grand Challenges projects are designed to achieve scientific breakthroughs against diseases that kill millions of people each year in the world's poorest countries.

The funding offered to WEHI and other groups internationally will be focused on developing vaccines to prevent malaria, one of the world's most devastating infectious diseases. Malaria kills up to 3 million people each year and destroys through premature death and disability the equivalent of at least 35 million years of healthy, productive human life every year.

The Grand Challenges initiative was launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, with a $200 million grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH).

Professor Alan Cowman and his team have developed ways to genetically alter the malaria parasite. These can be used to infect humans safely (because they no longer have the ability to transfer disease) with the aim of stimulating immunity against the disease.

With a grant of US$13 million, Professor Cowman's group have developed ways to switch off specific genes (identified by his co-grant winners, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and the University of Heidelberg in mice). These genetically altered parasites can be used to infect human volunteers to work out how the human body can develop an immunity to malaria the first step to developing an anti-malaria vaccine.

Two genes and their proteins have already been isolated and these will be the first to be tested to determine whether they trigger immunity in volunteers. According to Professor Cowman, these genetically altered parasites are expected to be tested by the US Army within 3 to 4 years at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Another researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is also part of a separate research consortium that has received more than US$8 million from the Gates/FNIH funding round. Working with two Canadian groups and a research team from the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris, Dr Louis Schofield will be developing ways to boost the human immune response to malaria infection. In particular he and his co-researchers will study ways in which people in developing countries develop a range of immunities against bacterial and parasitic infections (such as diarrhoea). If they can stimulate these responses in people to the more dangerous pathogens such as malaria this could be a valuable tool in the fight against the disease.

The Gates/FNIH announcement is recognition of Australia's preeminence in paraistology research. In recognition of the growing importance of protecting Australia from infectious organisms, and of Australia's research excellence in the area the federal government has created the ARC/NH&MRC Network for Parasitology which has its first scientific conference in Melbourne this week. Dr Nick Smith from the University of Technology, Sydney, is convener of the Network.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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