News / 4 February 2021

Innovative new research led by EMBL Australia group leader Dr Michelle Boyle has linked the activation of specific immune cells to the induction of protective antibodies against malaria.

The findings of researchers from the Burnet Institute and QIMR-Berghofer, recently published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, will help to inform the development of effective malaria vaccines that target these immune cells to boost the levels of protective antibodies.

The research involved the unique clinical trial of human malaria infection performed in laboratory-controlled conditions in healthy Australian adults.

This enables the study of human immune responses without the influence of prior malaria exposure or other co-morbidities.

Conducted at QIMR-Berghofer, participants were infected with a low dose of Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasites, monitored for the development of parasitemia and treated prior to the onset of symptoms.

Samples were collected at specific time points for the duration of the study and all participants were treated to clear parasites upon completion of the study.

“We evaluated specific subsets of cellular immunity that play crucial roles in regulating the development of antibodies to malaria,” said study lead author, Burnet Senior Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Dr Jo-Anne Chan.

“We showed that these cells, known as T-follicular helper cells, Th2 subset, are activated following experimental malaria infection.

“Our results characterise, for the first time, the cellular immune subsets that are associated with the induction of functional human antibodies required for protection against malaria.”

EMBL Australia group leader Dr Michelle Boyle – based at QIMR Berghofer – led the important research into human malaria antibodies.

Dr Michelle Boyle, laboratory head at QIMR-Berghofer who led this study said: “Understanding the role of cellular immunity in regulating the production of human antibodies is crucial for effective protection against human malaria.”

This research represents an important step towards the development of a much-needed world-first effective and long-lasting malaria vaccine.

The most advanced malaria vaccine, known as RTS,S is the only malaria vaccine to have progressed through Phase III trials and has shown significant but modest efficacy of 26-36 percent among infants and young children, even with a booster dose.

Each year, more than 400,000 people die of malaria, with an estimated two-thirds of deaths among children under the age of five.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a serious additional challenge to disrupt malaria control responses worldwide.

Find out more about Burnet’s malaria research and how you can support this important work.

This article originally appeared on the Burnet Institute website and was reproduced here with permission.

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