Vaccines for malaria are under development, with no completely effective vaccine yet available. The first promising studies demonstrating the potential for a malaria vaccine were performed in 1967 by immunizing mice with live, radiation-attenuated sporozoites, providing protection to about 60% of the mice upon subsequent injection with normal, viable sporozoites. Since the 1970s, there has been a considerable effort to develop similar vaccination strategies within humans. It was determined that an individual can be protected from a P. falciparum infection if they receive over 1000 bites from infected, irradiated mosquitoes.
It has been generally accepted that it is impractical to provide at-risk individuals with this vaccination strategy, but that has been recently challenged with work being done by Dr. Stephen Hoffman of Sanaria, one of the key researchers who originally sequenced the genome of Plasmodium falciparum. His work most recently has revolved around solving the logistical problem of isolating and preparing the parasites equivalent to 1000 irradiated mosquitoes for mass storage and inoculation of human beings. The company has recently received several multi-million dollar grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. government to begin early clinical studies in 2007 and 2008. The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), funded by the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, assures potential volunteers that “the  clinical trials won’t be a life-threatening experience. While many volunteers [in Seattle] will actually contract malaria, the cloned strain used in the experiments can be quickly cured, and does not cause a recurring form of the disease.” “Some participants will get experimental drugs or vaccines, while others will get placebo.”
Instead, much work has been performed to try and understand the immunological processes that provide protection after immunization with irradiated sporozoites. After the mouse vaccination study in 1967, it was hypothesized that the injected sporozoites themselves were being recognized by the immune system, which was in turn creating antibodies against the parasite. It was determined that the immune system was creating antibodies against the circumsporozoite protein (CSP) which coated the sporozoite. Moreover, antibodies against CSP prevented the sporozoite from invading hepatocytes. CSP was therefore chosen as the most promising protein on which to develop a vaccine against the malaria sporozoite. It is for these historical reasons that vaccines based on CSP are the most numerous of all malaria vaccines.
Presently, there is a huge variety of vaccine candidates on the table. Pre-erythrocytic vaccines (vaccines that target the parasite before it reaches the blood), in particular vaccines based on CSP, make up the largest group of research for the malaria vaccine. Other vaccine candidates include: those that seek to induce immunity to the blood stages of the infection; those that seek to avoid more severe pathologies of malaria by preventing adherence of the parasite to blood venules and placenta; and transmission-blocking vaccines that would stop the development of the parasite in the mosquito right after the mosquito has taken a bloodmeal from an infected person. It is hoped that the sequencing of the P. falciparum genome will provide targets for new drugs or vaccines.
The first vaccine developed that has undergone field trials, is the SPf66, developed by Manuel Elkin Patarroyo in 1987. It presents a combination of antigens from the sporozoite (using CS repeats) and merozoite parasites. During phase I trials a 75% efficacy rate was demonstrated and the vaccine appeared to be well tolerated by subjects and immunogenic. The phase IIb and III trials were less promising, with the efficacy falling to between 38.8% and 60.2%. A trial was carried out in Tanzania in 1993 demonstrating the efficacy to be 31% after a years follow up, however the most recent (though controversial) study in The Gambia did not show any effect. Despite the relatively long trial periods and the number of studies carried out, it is still not known how the SPf66 vaccine confers immunity; it therefore remains an unlikely solution to malaria. The CSP was the next vaccine developed that initially appeared promising enough to undergo trials. It is also based on the circumsporoziote protein, but additionally has the recombinant (Asn-Ala-Pro15Asn-Val-Asp-Pro)2-Leu-Arg(R32LR) protein covalently bound to a purified Pseudomonas aeruginosa toxin (A9). However at an early stage a complete lack of protective immunity was demonstrated in those inoculated. The study group used in Kenya had an 82% incidence of parasitaemia whilst the control group only had an 89% incidence. The vaccine intended to cause an increased T-lymphocyte response in those exposed, this was also not observed.
The efficacy of Patarroyo’s vaccine has been disputed with some US scientists concluding in The Lancet (1997) that “the vaccine was not effective and should be dropped” while the Colombian accused them of “arrogance” putting down their assertions to the fact that he came from a developing country.
The RTS,S/AS02A vaccine is the candidate furthest along in vaccine trials. It is being developed by a partnership between the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (a grantee of the Gates Foundation), the pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research In the vaccine, a portion of CSP has been fused to the immunogenic “S antigen” of the hepatitis B virus; this recombinant protein is injected alongside the potent AS02A adjuvant. In October 2004, the RTS,S/AS02A researchers announced results of a Phase IIb trial, indicating the vaccine reduced infection risk by approximately 30% and severity of infection by over 50%. The study looked at over 2,000 Mozambican children. More recent testing of the RTS,S/AS02A vaccine has focused on the safety and efficacy of administering it earlier in infancy: In October 2007, the researchers announced results of a phase I/IIb trial conducted on 214 Mozambican infants between the ages of 10 and 18 months in which the full three-dose course of the vaccine led to a 62% reduction of infection with no serious side-effects save some pain at the point of injection. Further research will delay this vaccine from commercial release until around 2011.