Three pillars of malaria elimination

Image: Professor James Beeson, Head of Burnet Institute’s Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory

On World Malaria Day 2022, Burnet Institute is affirming its commitment to a malaria research program built on three pillars – prevention, detection and treatment – to accelerate the process of malaria elimination globally.

“If we want malaria elimination, we’ve got to have tools that block and interrupt transmission,” Professor James Beeson, Head of Burnet’s Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory, said.

“And there are three arms to these tools – new vaccines for prevention, improved diagnostics and surveillance for detection, and better drugs for treatment – that form the broad objective of our program.”

New Vaccines for Prevention

Burnet’s vaccine program is aimed at developing vaccines that are highly effective at preventing infection, stopping people getting sick, and suppressing and eliminating the transmission of malaria in communities.

A key study led by Postdoctoral Research Officer Dr Liriye Kurtovic is looking closely at RTS,S, the only vaccine endorsed by the World Health Organization despite the modest level of protection it gives.

“RTS,S is an imperfect tool, it’s efficacy is only about 30-50 percent, but for a disease with such a large burden that can still make a significant difference when used in combination with other interventions,” Dr Kurtovic said.

“In our lab, we’re interested in understanding how the vaccine works. We know it induces antibodies, but we want to know how they function to prevent malaria.

“We need a vaccine that’s a step up from RTS,S, that will stop infection and stop transmission, and we’ve got some exciting new insights into how the immune system works to clear the infection.”

Hear from Professor Beeson on the challenge of creating a malaria vaccine in Episode 8 of Burnet Institute’s How Science Matters podcast.

Improved Diagnostics and Surveillance for Detection

“In order to eliminate malaria, we have to be able to detect it, and we know there’s a huge undiscovered burden because tests are not picking up between 50 to 90 per cent of infections depending on the setting and type of malaria,” Professor Beeson said.

Burnet’s STRIVE PNG study is helping to address this problem through the establishment of a real-time integrated sentinel surveillance and response system in eight provinces across Papua New Guinea (PNG).

STRIVE PNG is generating evidence to enable the implementation of rapid-response strategies for malaria and other vector-borne diseases (VBDs) and strengthening PNG’s capacity for research implementation and the development of policies to safeguard the country against VBDs.

Better Drugs for Treatment

“Drug resistance is spreading globally, and it’s putting at risk our ability to treat and clear malaria infection, so we need to develop drugs to overcome the problem of resistance and clear infection and, most importantly, help suppress infections in communities,” Professor Beeson said.

Burnet’s work in this field includes new research led by Malaria Virulence and Drug Discovery Group Co-Head, Associate Professor Paul Gilson, that identifies processes in the malaria parasite essential for its survival.

“The more we understand about these processes, the better position we’re in to develop new treatments to block those processes,” Associate Professor Gilson, said.

“Current drugs tend to target very similar steps in malaria’s machinery, but by discovering new targets and developing drugs to these we can hopefully overcome resistance.”

The Big Picture

Fundamental to Burnet’s malaria program and approach is that research and activities are undertaken across a broad spectrum.

“We have discovery science work that is conducted in our laboratories, or through data analysis and modelling, and research and clinical trials that we conduct with communities and partner organisations in populations affected by malaria,” Professor Beeson said.

“We also address how to implement new interventions, new strategies or new tools in communities in areas affected by malaria, and how to ensure everyone has access to these potential new tools and interventions.

“At a time when the global burden of malaria is on the rise, our work and our expertise has never been more relevant or more important.”

Click here to find out more about Burnet’s malaria research and how you can support this life-saving work.

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