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Researchers Identify New Target of Malaria Vaccine

Update Date: May 23, 2014 11:52 AM EDT

Malaria is a mosquito-borne illness that can cause symptoms, such as fevers, chills and anemia. Malaria, which is a fatal infection if left untreated, kills more than 600,000 children every year. There is currently no vaccine available for this parasitic infection despite multiple efforts to create one. However, according to new research, an effective vaccine could be within reach.

In this study, the research team headed by Dr. Jonathan Kurtis from Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University examined blood that was collected from children in Tanzania who had a natural resistance to the infection. These children were infected with malaria but developed very mild symptoms. The samples were taken by Dr. Michal Fried and Dr. Patrick Duff from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"We're finding the rare needle in a haystack," Kurtis explained according to NPR. "We're finding the rare parasite protein that generates a protective immune response."

The researchers found that these children had developed protective immune system cells, also known as antibodies. Their antibodies effectively protected them from the infection by blocking the parasite from exiting out of the red blood cells.

"Our parasite protein is critical for the parasite's escape from the red cell," Kurtis said. "And it needs to escape from the red cell if it's going to go on and infect other red cells and multiply."

After examining these antibodies, the team was able to create a vaccine. So far, they have tested the vaccine on mice models and found that it was capable of protecting the mice against malaria to a certain extent. Mice that received the vaccine survived longer than the unvaccinated mice after they were all exposed to the malaria parasite. The researchers acknowledged the fact that the same results might not be seen in humans. However, they are optimistic that the vaccine could be modified for humans in the future.

"But this does look very exciting," said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America reported by Philly.

The study, "Antibodies to PfSEA-1 block parasite egress from RBCs and protect against malaria infection," was published in Science.

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