Parasites: Watch Out

October 28, 2011

Rheanna Sand

Vaccines are, depending on who you ask, either microscopic life saving miracles, or a plot by the government to elicit mind control and cause autism. As a scientist, I prefer the first answer. It's a crazy enough idea, that you can protect yourself from an infectious disease by taking in a small amount of it, and it has a documented history going back at least three centuries. The smallpox vaccine was officially developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner, but in 1718 the aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu inoculated her own children against smallpox using a technique she borrowed from the Turks. Smart Lady.


Enough is enough, Anopheles gambiae.


But, in over 300 years of protecting people from infection, the world has never seen a vaccine that protected against a parasite. Typically, we are vaccinated against viruses (e.g. influenza, smallpox) or bacteria (e.g. tuberculosis), or even against toxins (e.g. tetanus), but there is no such thing as an effective parasite vaccine. That is, until now.

Phase III clinical trials are underway on the RTS,S/AS01 candidate vaccine, which targets not just one but multiple strains of the single-celled devil that causes malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, and the partially completed results are very promising. When looking at 5-17 month old children, the vaccine reportedly cut the risk of clinical malaria by 56% and the risk of severe malaria by 47%. However, recent scrutiny of the published results say that these percentages could actually be as low as ~34 to 38%, and that the real age range of interest is 6-12 weeks, since this is the age at which the World Health Organization would actually give the vaccinations. This age range was not reported in this recent paper, drawing criticism from the scientific community.

Nonetheless, when the clinical trials for RTS,S/AS01 are complete in 2014, the world may just have it's first parasite vaccine, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of African children every year. From there, it's onward and upward. Beaver Fever, we're coming for YOU.


The life cyle of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Simple, isn't it?



DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026616



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