Of all the people most vulnerable to contracting malaria, there is no group more susceptible than pregnant women. And in particular, it’s the threat of Placental Malaria (PM), which can be fatal for both mother and fetus.
But efforts to provide an effective vaccine against PM brought Expres2ion (Denmark), Mucosis (The Netherlands) and The University of Copenhagen (Denmark) together under the Improved Vaccines project supported by EUREKA’s Eurostars programe.
To understand the work done during this project is to understand what makes PM so difficult to stop in the first place. And although there are many factors which contribute to its widespread effects, the two causes that concerned the partners the most were Cost and Efficacy.
Coming up with a vaccine for PM is not cheap. The engineers and scientists need to be paid, huge funding is required to carry out research etc.
Now, think of the sub-Saharan countries in Africa where the vaccine is most needed. These are amongst the poorest economies in the world, who often cannot afford to pay for the inevitably expensive vaccines being developed.
On top of all this, the vaccine industry is a multi-billion dollar market which means it is exposed to all the usual competitive aspects of any market.
Solving the problem
So, how did the Improved Vaccines deal with these cost issues?
“We had developed a vaccine against PM in 2003”, says Ali Salanti of the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). “However, the vaccine couldn’t produce enough protein to make it really effective.”
Protein is a key component of the vaccine which helps to repair tissue, blood, muscle, skin etc.
“So one of the ways we minimised cost was by maximising the amount of protein that the vaccine produces. The problem with most vaccines is that the amount of protein being produced is quite low. So pregnant women have to keep getting immunised over and over again to avoid getting PM. Logically, the more potent the vaccine, the less immunisations you need to give and the less money needs to be spent”.
“As a result of the ideas generated during this project, we have actually developed a completely new technology for delivering vaccines that target cancers where there are currently no effective therapies”
And this is where the work done by ExpreS2ion (Denmark) was so important. They had developed a way of enabling a vaccine to continue producing more protein, through a process called ‘Glycoengineering’, which increases the protein’s capacity to recruit immune cells, therefore strengthening the vaccine produced by UCPH.
Using only the UCPH’s vaccine with ExpreS2ion’s protein expression system, would mean that although more protein was being produced, the vaccine would not last long enough to prevent frequent re-immunisation.
“Obviously, we cannot predict when a woman will get pregnant”, says Mr Salanti. “So if she has not been immunised before getting pregnant, and contracts PM at that stage, it’s too late. So ideally, what we need is a vaccine that women can take before getting pregnant which would last long enough to immunise her when she did eventually become pregnant.”
It was the SME Mucosis (Netherlands) that provided the solution. Using the same bacteria that preserves cheese and milk, they applied what are called ‘Bacterium-Like-Particles’ to the vaccine. The chemical process that takes place creates a robust cell. And it’s this surface that produces the long lasting immunity for protecting against PM.
So what now?
“As a result of the ideas generated during this project, we have actually developed a completely new technology for delivering vaccines that target cancers where there are currently no effective therapies,” says Mr Salanti. “This technology has been very well received in the industry and we have patented it.”
The new company set up on the back of the Eurostars project (VAR2 Pharmaceuticals) uses the protein maximisation lessons from ‘Improved Vaccines’ and many companies are already using this technology to test their own vaccines.
“It’s a long process, from coming up with the initial blueprint for the vaccine, to strengthening it, to testing it, to getting it to the people who need it”, says Mr Salanti. “So right now, clinical trials for the vaccine are ongoing. All going well, we hope to have it available for people in three years.”