India could soon provide a literal shot in the arm to the fight against malaria. A team of researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have developed a new vaccine candidate that uses sporozoites (an immature stage of the malarial parasite; in this case, Plasmodium berghei) to kickstart acquired immune response to the pathogen. The researchers shut down a gene in the parasite’s genome that enables it to produce “heme”, a molecule that powers its survival in the host organism’s liver where it matures before entering the bloodstream. Tests in mice returned a “80-85% efficacy”.
If planned trials in other mammals, including human trials at a later stage, return similar or better results, it would be the single-most important breakthrough to have emerged from a country with a high malaria burden—malaria affects over 200 million people worldwide every year, of which 9.75 million cases are from India. The parasite has adapted aggressively to drugs used to treat the disease—reports of resistance to artemisinin, the most important anti-malarial drug, in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand have become all too frequent these past few years. With drug-led treatment getting debilitated to the extent that it is, a line of disease control that strikes at a more fundamental level becomes all the more pertinent—which is why the IISc team’s vaccine and likes from elsewhere are the way forward. Besides, in India, according to the WHO’s World Malaria report 2013, the largest chunk of spending on malaria control comes from government coffers. Given that nearly three-quarters of the spending is on programme management overheads, a preventive, such as the IISc vaccine, will also probably cures the recurrent but ineffective expenditure.