Joining forces to develop an effective malaria vaccine

In a truly South-South collaboration, scientists from MRC Unit The Gambia and the University of Dakar, UCAD Senegal, are conducting a joint trial to determine the safety and interference of the malaria vectored vaccines when given together with EPI vaccines to young Gambian infants, funded through the Malaria Vectored Vaccine Consortium 2 (MVVC2).


Some members of the MVVC2 team. From left to right: Ebrima Touray, Muhammed Afolabi, Ebrima Kanteh, Amy Ndaw & Victorine Mensah (UCAD, Senegal), Sarjo Sanneh, Ceri McKenna

Malaria remains a leading cause of childhood illness and death, predominantly in Africa, despite the implementation of extensive control measures. An effective vaccine is a key complementary strategy to achieve the Roll Back Malaria initiative and Millennium Development Goals.

Leading researchers from The Jenner Institute, University of Oxford have therefore been working to develop an effective malaria vaccine using a unique heterologous approach involving delivery of a potent liver and sporozoite stage antigen, called ME-TRAP, through the use of two special agents that are given sequentially, eight weeks apart.

Under the auspices of the Malaria Vectored Vaccine Consortium, a number of vaccine trials funded by European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) and coordinated by European Vaccine Initiative Germany took place in the four partner sites including MRC Unit The Gambia, UCAD Senegal, CNRFP Burkina Faso and KEMRI Kilifi. The Unit successfully conducted the early phase of the vaccine trials in adults, children and infants while the efficacy trials took place in UCAD, KEMRI and CNFRP.

Consolidating on the success recorded in the first round of the trials at all partner sites, the Consortium applied for and won a competitive Strategic Primer Grant under the operational name Malaria Vectored Vaccine Consortium 2 (MVVC2).

The grant seeks to conduct a trial to establish whether the candidate malaria vaccines would cause interference when co-administered with routine Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) vaccines in healthy Gambian infants aged 16 weeks, eight weeks and one week. The unique aspect of the trial is that scientists from MRC Unit The Gambia and UCAD Senegal unanimously agreed to jointly conduct this important trial. This distinctive collaboration represents a paradigm shift from the usual North-South collaboration and fulfils the cardinal goal of the funder, EDCTP.

Like every other human endeavour, the trial is not without challenges, nevertheless the MRC and UCAD scientists are well motivated to overcome the challenges and achieve the objectives of the vaccine trial. At the time of writing, the team had successfully completed the enrolment of the 16 and eight-week-old infants and were preparing to start the last lap of the study involving one week old babies.

For the Senegalese collaborators who have relocated to live and work at the MRC Unit in The Gambia it has been an exciting and resourceful experience working in a multi-cultural world-class research institute in Africa. They are eager to consolidate their experience in the conduct of cutting-edge research. Their MRC hosts are also making concerted efforts to nurture the partnership between two sites to develop the capacity of young West African scientists to lead translational research that saves lives and improve health across the developing world.