Global collaboration is urgently needed to deliver a successful malaria vaccine given a lack of research funds, says the head of an Australian lab seeking a breakthrough.
Professor Jake Baum of the University of NSW's Medicine & Health says COVID-19 changed the immunisation landscape profoundly, notably through the fast development of vaccines in a year, rather than 25 to 30 years.
The first malaria vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline's Mosquirix, was licensed in October 2021 but is only 30 to 40 per cent effective at preventing malaria, with rapidly waning immunity.
Other shots for the mosquito-borne disease are in development, including the highly anticipated R21/Matrix-M but the lack of a lasting immune response is still an issue.
"We need a much better vaccine if we're really going to entertain the idea of getting rid of malaria, which is the driving ambition of many, including myself," Prof Baum said.
The tropical disease is a major threat to over half the world's population and kills more than 600,000 people every year, most of them children under five.
Prof Baum said malaria was a disease of the developing world but the global research and development budget for it was only about $650 million.
That compared to hundreds of billions of dollars for research into cancers and other diseases.
Prof Baum told AAP the lack of investment in malaria research meant progress towards a successful vaccine was much slower than it could be and researchers worldwide had to collaborate to speed things up.
"Unless there's a massive change in the amount of money that comes to malaria research, to get there quickly we are going to have to get there together, we're not going to get there by working in silos."
He said his lab wanted to champion that - to share information, keep other labs informed of research and progress and be open to critique.
Prof Baum's lab aims to develop a vaccine that gives better than 30 to 40 per cent protection, protects for years not months and is readily manufactured.
Most vaccines, including COVID ones, trigger an immune response that generates antibodies that protect against invading pathogens but they need constant boosting to keep antibody numbers high.
Prof Baum's team is looking at cellular immunity, another arm of the immune system not based on antibodies, that involves cells patrolling the body, finding infected cells and killing them.
"There's a lot of evidence that says that makes a better vaccine," he said.
"The challenge is it is harder to design and harder to measure but if we could make a vaccine that targeted cellular immunity that would be potentially a real game changer."
Baum Lab researcher Michael Johnson says Australia doesn't have malaria but the Anopheles mosquito that can host the disease is in the country's north.
"And so it is definitely possible that localised epidemics could occur in the future."
The lab seeks to understand the life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria and identify weak points a vaccine could target.
It is setting up an insectary - a tightly regulated area for breeding Anopheles mosquitoes so they can be infected with Plasmodium.
The researchers will then be able to study the full Plasmodium life cycle and test experimental vaccines directly.
Prof Baum said the parasite was "winning at the moment" but a successful vaccine could hopefully be developed in five to 10 years to help the world "say goodbye to malaria".
Australian Associated Press
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