While a lot of progress has been made in controlling and treating malaria, the goal of producing a vaccine remains elusive.
Malaria has evolved to thwart almost every aspect of the human immune system. On March 16-17, 2009, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, convened a workshop to encourage more immunologists to enter malaria research and to foster scientific collaborations that may help lead to the development of effective malaria vaccines. The proceedings of that meeting are in the July 2009 issue of Nature Immunology
, and available online June 18.
Nearly half of the world's population, or about 3.3 billion people, are at risk of malarial infection, and it causes more than 250 million clinical episodes and one million deaths each year. Anyone can get malaria but pregnant women, young children, and first-time suffers often have more complicated infections. Unlike diseases such as chickenpox and measles, where a single infection offers life-long immunity, bouts of malaria can occur repeatedly. Individuals acquire malaria through the bite of Anopheles mosquitoes infected with any of four species of Plasmodium parasites. To develop a protective malaria vaccine, researchers must identify which of the Plasmodium parasite's 5,300 proteins provoke a strong immune response. Further complicating vaccine development, the parasite makes different proteins at each stage of its lifecycle.
NIAID recognizes that collaboration among scientists of diverse disciplines is necessary to accelerate research in malaria. The goals of the NIAID-supported workshop were to identify research gaps in malaria immunology; address issues that hinder immunologists from conducting malaria research; identify resources to facilitate studies of immunity in malaria; and challenge immunologists to join with their colleagues in unraveling the immune mechanisms that protect against or contribute to the development and effects of malarial disease.
NIAID is the lead U.S. government agency that supports basic biomedical and clinical research in malaria (. The NIAID Malaria Research Agenda and Strategic Plan, both published in April 2008, emphasize the need for improved understanding of host immune responses to malaria parasite infection and the relationship between immune responses and disease pathogenesis.