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What Is the Key to Developing a Malaria Vaccine, Ms Osier?

By Kristin Hüttmann

Very early on, the Kenyan Faith Osier dreamt of developing a vaccine to combat malaria. Every year in Africa, more than 400,000 people die of the infectious disease, which is caused by single-cell parasites and transmitted by mosquitos.

Faith Osier
Faith Osier (Photo: Humboldt Foundation / David Spaeth)

The focus of Faith Osier’s research is the natural immunity to malaria that people can develop. That is why she and her team in seven African countries examine the blood and antibody response of test subjects who, having contracted malaria once, never suffer from it again.

The researchers also study malaria parasites during the various phases of their development. They have identified numerous proteins in the protozoa which malaria researchers had not yet considered. Now they want to investigate in detail how antibodies help to combat these proteins.

One thing is already clear: the malaria parasite is a particularly tough opponent because different proteins are active in every phase of its life. They offer many potential points of attack for the body’s own immune system. Specialists speak of antigens. “We have to put various antigens in an effective vaccine,” says Osier, “so that our bodies use these antigens to form appropriate antibodies that can fight the parasite.” It will still take quite a while before the first vaccines can be manufactured. “But we are making progress and are really hopeful.”

published in Humboldt Kosmos 110/2019

Dr Faith H. A. Osier is a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner heading a research group at the German Centre for Infection Research at Heidelberg University Hospital.