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One bite can be fatal - the search for a malaria vaccine

With 500 million new malaria infections every year, a vaccine is urgently needed. Researchers in Hamburg are trying to find a serum, but they also stress the importance of working at a preventative level.

A mosquito up close on a finger

The deadly Anopheles mosquito transmits malaria

As small as she is, the female Anopheles mosquito can be deadly. On her nocturnal flights in search of sustenance, she transmits the malaria pathogen, which claims the life of one child every 30 seconds in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ten years ago, United Nations member states pledged to cut the number of malaria infections in half by the end of 2010. That bell has now tolled, but there is still no effective inoculation, nor is there enough money to fight the disease.

Laboratory infection

Maja Kono with her laboratory in the background

Maya Kono wants to know how to block the relevant proteins

Thousands of kilometers and a world away from Africa, in a tiny laboratory in Hamburg, Maya Kono simulates a malaria infection. The 32 year-old, who works as a biologist at the Bernhard-Nocht-Institute for tropical disease, carefully removes two petri-dishes from an incubator. They contain malaria parasites and human blood kept at 37 degrees.

"The pathogen enters the red blood cell and feeds there on the hemoglobin," Maya Kono explains, adding that after 48 hours, the cell bursts open and releases new pathogens.

"It was important for me to find out exactly how this invasion occurs, because somehow the parasite has to know that it is a red blood cell, not a white one," she said.

Proteins are key

petri-dishes containing blood and malaria pathogens

Ideal conditions for malaria pathogens in the petri-dish

Key to understanding are proteins. Using the lock and key principle, they attach themselves to the red blood cells and open them for the parasites. If the relevant proteins could be blocked, it would be impossible for the pathogens to get through.

"The problem is that there are rather a lot of them," Kono said, referring to the quantity of proteins. Over the past 20 years, researchers have isolated 50 of them, and the young Hamburg-based scientist found a further 20 while working on her PhD.

Flexible pathogen

In order to better control the function of the proteins, the biologist attaches a fluorescent molecule to them. Under a special microscope the glowing spots show where on the proteins the parasites are located. When they are on the surface, they play an important role in the invasion.

"Even so, it will take years to develop a vaccine," she said, explaining that malaria infections are complex. "The main problem is that the pathogen is pretty clever and can build up resistance really quickly. If one key doesn't manage to open the red blood cell, it changes strategy and uses a different one."

Frequent misdiagnosis

Professor Rolf Horstmann

The fight against malaria requires more than research, says Professor Horstmann

Professor Rolf Horstmann, who heads the Bernhard-Nocht-Institute, says the fight against malaria requires more than just research.

"As often as not sufferers in Africa can't afford to go to hospital or to pay for treatment," he said. "And if they do get to the doctor, they are often sent away with a wrong diagnosis."

And while children and babies are more vulnerable than adults, the disease can affect anyone, which as Horstmann explains makes poverty a vicious circle.

"Adults, who are the productive ones in society, often contract malaria, which makes them less productive and helps to keep society poor," he said.

As far as he is concerned, research into the illness has to go hand-in-hand with health policies. He cites Ghana as an example of how to proceed. Four years ago, the West African county, which was once a breeding ground for malaria, introduced across-the-board health insurance.

"On the one hand malaria treatment has improved," Horstmann said. "And on the other hand a lot of people with advanced malaria who couldn't have afforded to go to the doctor before, now can."

Malaria under the microscope

Malaria up close and deadly

He says the long-term effect will be fewer malaria deaths. But the scientist says there is also more that can be done at a preventative level. He and his team are working with local colleagues and aid organizations in Ghana to promote the proper use of mosquito nets.

In hospitals and schools, they teach potential victims to waterproof their nets regularly, to mend holes in them, and to seek refuge beneath them when darkness begins to descend and the mosquitoes begin their nightly flight.

Author: Aygül Cizmecioglu (tkw)
Editor: Sarah Steffen

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