New Zealand scientists create new mRNA-based malaria vaccine in potential major breakthrough

New Zealand scientists have created a new malaria vaccine believed to be a world-first as it could provide long-lasting protection and be used on people who've already been exposed to the disease.

A team of researchers from Victoria University of Wellington's Ferrier Research Institute, the Malaghan Institute and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Australia have developed an mRNA-based vaccine that can effectively target and stimulate protective immune cell responses against the malaria-causing parasite.

Unlike the COVID-19 vaccine that works by neutralising antibodies, their unique approach relies on T-cells which play a critical role in immunity.

"Specifically, a type of T-cell called a tissue-resident memory T-cell, that halts malaria infection in the liver to completely stop the spread of infection," said co-author Mitch Ganley.

They've analysed years of previous research on different vaccine technologies to produce a vaccine that targets the liver, where the malaria parasite develops.

"So it prevents the parasite from escaping the liver. If you prevent the parasite from escaping the liver, you can block infection. That's what's special about it and that's what's unique about it," said Professor Gavin Painter from the Ferrier Institute.

He said it's an exciting development.

"It demonstrates the huge potential of RNA technology in solving some of the world's biggest health problems and the growing capability and expertise in mRNA vaccine development here in New Zealand and Australia."

Dr Mitch Ganley from the Ferrier Research Institute has been working on the vaccine for years.
Dr Mitch Ganley from the Ferrier Research Institute has been working on the vaccine for years. Photo credit: Supplied

Malaria causes over half a million deaths a year, and after 30 years of vaccine development there still isn't an effective long-lasting jab, or one that isn't hindered by previous exposure to malaria.

Until now, Professor Ian Hermans from the Malaghan Institute says they've tested their vaccine on mice, and have overcome both of those hurdles.

"It's a really exciting potential advantage for the vaccine. What we've identified is a vulnerability of the parasite that you can actually target with the T-cell-inducing vaccine."

The mosquito that carries malaria doesn't live here but Prof Hermans said because of climate change creating more tropical climates, it may in future.

"It could move into New Zealand, so we're trying to future-proof New Zealanders as well as this being a huge global problem."

They're also applying their findings to a possible cure for hepatitis B, a virus affecting 100,000 Kiwis.

"Ian and I have a collaboration with a group in Milan and we are progressing the hepatitis B angle of the same technology," said Prof Painter.

Now that the vaccine's been tested on mice, the next stage is to progress it to human clinical trials - but that's expected to take years.

"It's complicated, the parasite that infects the mouse is different than the parasite that infects humans," said Prof Hermans.

Prof Painter said with more funding, it could progress to a human vaccine more quickly.

"This technology could be picked up by bigger entities with deeper pockets, so it could accelerate faster - and we'd be very open to that," he said.