Scientists taking a giant step in the war against malaria

Article by Duncan Learmouth – GSK’s senior vice-president, Developing Countries and Market Access.

We are at a landmark moment in the world’s fight against malaria. Results from a major trial of 15,460 African children released this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, show the RTS,S vaccine created by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has reduced the risk of malaria by 55 per cent in children aged between 5-17 months.

Malaria Mosquito
Malaria Mosquito

This is a seminal moment in the power of medical science to save lives. It also shows what can be achieved when people come together with a shared determination to tackle one of the world’s fiercest diseases.

Malaria is one of Africa’s most debilitating diseases. Every 45 seconds, a child dies of malaria and many more are left with severe brain damage.

It is one of the greatest contributing factors to trapping African communities in poverty, in a continent that spends 40 per cent of its health budget trying to tackle the disease.

I know first-hand the devastating effect that this disease has on Africa, as I spend a great deal of time in sub-Saharan countries helping to run GSK’s businesses.

I constantly see the clinics packed full of children suffering from malaria and we can only imagine the suffering of many more living in remote villages with little or no access to healthcare.

With this latest announcement, I hope this vaccine will play a role in ensuring that African children can be part of the first generation to be at significantly lower risk of contracting malaria.

Scientists from across the world have been trying to tackle malaria for the last 40 years. It is spread by mosquitoes carrying a human parasite that hides in a person’s liver within minutes of being bitten.

Throughout the 1980s and 1890s, attempts to fight malaria tried to kill the parasite in those moments when it entered the bloodstream before attacking the liver. They failed.The Eureka moment came for GSK scientists in the late 1990s. We discovered that we needed to target the malaria parasite in the liver rather than in the bloodstream. The vaccine takes this unique approach – it hunts down the parasites in the liver.

The scientific complexity of the challenge makes this latest milestone all the more rewarding. It is the result of nearly 30 years of work by hundreds of people in GSK.

Many of those same scientists who were there at the start, including malaria vaccine inventor Joe Cohen, are still working on it today.

But this landmark research milestone isn’t just down to the work of GSK. It is the result of one of the biggest public-private partnerships of its kind and collaboration between many different organisations and people outside of GSK. The majority of the development has, in fact, been carried out in Africa.

The vaccine is being tested in 15,500 children at 11 sites in 7 African countries (Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania). The size of this trial is huge, an effort that has brought together experts from across the world.

This innovative approach to partnership is quite remarkable. The expertise and effort from so many different organisations has been decisive in driving forward its development.

More work now needs to be done to ensure the vaccine will have its desired impact in saving millions of lives by being available to the children that need it.

We haven’t worked on this vaccine for the last 30-years to see it sat on a shelf – we want it to be accessible to as many people as possible.

So we will cover the cost of producing the vaccine and make a return of 5 per cent that will be used purely to reinvest in further research. This is not a commercial venture for us.

The next step is for results from the 6 to 12 week-old infants to be published at the end of 2012. This is the age at which the vaccine is intended to be given through the extended programme of immunisation in sub-Saharan Africa, alongside vaccinations for tetanus, measles and polio. This will ensure there will be no cost for African families from the poorest countries.

The vaccine will be submitted to the regulatory authorities before it is made available. We could see the first vaccinations being administered as early as 2015. At GSK, we will do everything in our power to make sure this happens.

Source – Daily Nation By Duncan Learmouth, October 27, 2011