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NIAID-Supported Biotech Company Seeks Eradication of Malaria Through “Whole-Parasite” Vaccine Strategy

Dr. Stephen Hoffman founded the biotechnology company Sanaria in 2003 to design and commercialize a “whole parasite” vaccine against Plasmodium falciparum malaria. Sanaria, with the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, received a multiyear Small Business Innovation Research Grant from NIAID. The grant supports research and development of genetically engineered mosquitoes that will enhance the process of Sanaria’s whole-parasite malaria vaccine production.

Most malaria vaccines under development consist of recombinant proteins (genetically engineered portions of the parasite) believed to be capable of eliciting an immune response against the disease. Sanaria has taken a different approach. Instead of using small portions of the parasite, the company seeks to induce protective immunity against malaria by producing a vaccine that contains a weakened form of the whole malaria parasite harvested from irradiated mosquitoes. The weakened whole-parasite malaria vaccine cannot cause disease but should induce immunity when injected into a person.

Sanaria’s starting point was an immunogen already shown to be effective. In human trials carried out over many years, radiation-attenuated P. falciparum sporozoites (the parasite stage usually injected by mosquitoes into humans) provided sterile, protective immunity that lasted for at least 10 months in some participants. Scientists did not develop this concept for two major reasons: 1) they considered it technically impractical and 2) they considered it unnecessary because they believed modern “subunit" vaccines would solve the problem. Sanaria reexamined the issues and determined that a malaria sporozoite vaccine was practical, possible, and worth pursuing.

Sanaria achieved a major milestone when it began the Phase I trial of their whole-parasite malaria vaccine in May 2009. U.S. adult volunteers at two sites, the National Naval Medical Center Clinical Trials Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, were enrolled in this study, which will assess of the safety and efficiency of the vaccine.

If successful, Sanaria’s whole-parasite vaccine may have the potential to prevent the severe illnesses and nearly one million deaths caused each year by P. falciparum malaria.

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Last Updated July 23, 2010