Researchers working on a new malaria vaccine have an unusual way of going about it. By sticking test subjects’ arms over a box full of mosquitoes, the researchers allow genetically modified mosquitoes to bite and deliver the vaccine.
A team at the University of Washington gave mosquitoes a genetically engineered malaria parasite and then used those mosquitoes to inject humans through bites, it reported in a paper published Aug. 24 in the medical journal Science Translational Medicine.
“We use the mosquitoes like they’re 1,000 small flying syringes,” UW physician Dr. Sean Murphy wrote in the paper, Fox News reported Wednesday.
Murphy and his fellow researchers decided to use mosquitoes to save money and time on trying to develop some form of the parasite that could be administered with a needle, NPR reported Sept. 21.
The researchers do not plan on vaccinating people with mosquitoes. It is just an effective and cheaper way to try it out in research and clinical trials.
“They went old school with this one. All things old become new again,” Dr. Kirsten Lyke, a physician and vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told NPR.
Though the method for trying out this new malaria vaccine might be old school, Lyke said, using a live, genetically modified parasite for a malaria vaccine could be “a total game changer.”
Essentially, researchers have genetically engineered a live parasite that could “constitute a potential platform for creating consistently attenuated, genetically defined, whole-parasite vaccines against malaria through targeted gene deletions,” they explained in their paper.
The researchers then had to test this in humans who had controlled malaria infection.
“To take the work further, the scientists measured the efficacy of the vaccine against controlled human malaria infection in people who had no previous malaria exposure,” the University of Washington School of Medicine said in an Aug. 24 news release. “The vaccine was delivered through hundreds of mosquito bites from mosquitoes containing the genetically engineered malaria parasite.”
So far, the experiment has shown promising results as the human body responded with antibodies.
“The researchers found that the vaccine was capable of inducing protection against the subsequent ‘challenge’ infection. The vaccine elicited antibodies that were functional in blocking sporozoite infection,” the news release said.
The approach does have some disadvantages, however.
“The researchers mentioned that one of several limitations of their most recent study was the inability to determine the exact dose of vaccine delivered through the mosquito-bite method,” the release said.
Though there is already a malaria vaccine, it is not terribly effective, according to NPR. This has spurred researchers to keep trying to find better ways to fight the disease, which killed an estimated 627,000 people in 2020, according to the World Health Organization.
GlaxoSmithKline’s RTS was hailed by its makers as a “ground-breaking malaria vaccine, developed over decades,” in an October news release.
The WHO approved the GSK vaccine last year but it is only 30 to 40 percent effective, NPR reported.
So Murphy and other researchers are experimenting to find a more effective solution.
But for the people in the University of Washington trial, it’s not a pleasant experience to be bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes.
Carolina Reid, one of the volunteers in the clinical trial, told NPR how she simply placed her arms over a box filled with 200 mosquitoes and the biting began.
“My whole forearm swelled and blistered,” Reid said.
“My family was laughing, asking like, ‘Why are you subjecting yourself to this?’” she said.
Reid joined the trial in 2018 and has done this five times. She has been paid $4,100 for participating, NPR reported.
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