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Working on a more effective malaria vaccine: ‘safety jacket’ for parasites

The Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) is working on the development of a new malaria vaccine that will be more effective than existing ones. To do so, a unique interdisciplinary collaboration has been started between the teams of Meta Roestenberg, Professor of Human Models for Vaccine Development, and Fijs van Leeuwen, Professor of Professor of Molecular Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy.

The collaboration is a good cross-pollination between the different disciplines and is thus delivering new insights. The new vaccine is needed because around 500,000 children die each year from malaria. It is a major problem worldwide. Malaria parasites find their way to the liver via mosquito bites. One reason why this disease causes such serious problems is that the immune system is not very good at recognising the parasite. ‘This is because the parasite has been evolving with humans for thousands of years’, says Roestenberg. ‘It has adapted and is able to hide, so it’s actually invisible.’

Reflective jackets

The researchers came up with the idea of dressing the malaria parasite in a ‘reflective’ jacket. ‘What we mean here is chemical modifications that will help the immune system recognise the parasite’, says Van Leeuwen, who is originally a chemist. ‘You can compare it with the reflective yellow jackets that road workers wear, for example. This makes the parasite “visible”, triggering the immune system to recognise and respond to it.’ Roestenberg adds, ‘As the vaccine consists of whole parasites, this means that the immune system will eventually recognise the parasite even if it isn’t wearing a jacket.’

There is currently a prototype of the chemical jacket and validations are taking place in a model system. But many more steps need to be taken before it is an actual product, first in the lab and then in the clinic. ‘If we succeed, the impact will be huge’, says Roestenberg. ‘Then we potentially have a vaccine that we can potentially save half a million children’s lives with per year.’

LUMC Donation Investment Fund

Money is needed to actually carry out this and other innovative studies. Government research funding will not suffice for this. The government thinks that funding should also come from the private sector. This is why the LUMC Donation Investment Fund (part of the Bontius Foundation) was set up.  

Within the fund, donors support promising research projects that could use some acceleration through funding. Once a project has successfully led to a product or treatment and can be introduced (on the market), the second phase begins. The same donors, and other interested parties too, can then invest in a new company or spin-off.

For more information about the research projects or to become a donor, see the LUMC Donation Investment Fund website.

Photo: Istock

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