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Story of 100-Year Quest for Elusive Malaria Vaccine


Book by UCR Biologist Tells Story of 100-Year Quest for Elusive Malaria Vaccine

Irwin W. Sherman’s book offers insights into the keys to a successful malaria vaccine and the obstacles hindering its development

(September 29, 2009)

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Irwin Sherman is a professor emeritus of biology at UC Riverside.  Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.Enlarge

Irwin Sherman is a professor emeritus of biology at UC Riverside. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A deadly disease, malaria afflicts 350-500 million people worldwide each year and kills more than a million people. Transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, the disease occurs in more than 100 countries and territories, with at least 40 percent of the world’s population at risk.

Understandably, an area of intensive research is the development of an effective malaria vaccine. Yet, despite decades of research that has resulted in four Nobel prizes awarded for malaria work, no effective vaccine against the disease has been introduced into clinical practice. Indeed, the year 2010 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the first attempt at a malaria vaccine.

Now in his book, The Elusive Malaria Vaccine: Miracle or Mirage? (American Society for Microbiology Press, 2009), Irwin Sherman, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Riverside, chronicles the 100-year quest for the still-elusive vaccine.

“I wrote this book to make the science of malaria vaccines accessible and understandable to a general audience,” Sherman said. “In the book I offer insight into the problems associated with the development of malaria vaccines and I address the public’s curiosity about them, as well as the reasoning behind the need for developing vaccines.”

A legitimate question that may be asked is why a protective vaccine against malaria has remained so elusive. The problem, according to Sherman, does not lie in a lack of communication.

“After all, stories of malaria vaccines have been told in thousands of scientific papers, in newspaper and magazine articles,” he said. “I believe the fault lies in the fact that the message for a protective vaccine has not been specifically addressed to a general audience so that an understanding of the problem can result.

“There is no recent easily accessible chronicle of the preparation of malaria vaccines nor are there descriptions of the crusaders – past and present – who have labored to produce a protective vaccine against malaria. Further, the scientific literature does not convey a sense of the drama in the pursuit.”

In the book’s 13 chapters, Sherman captures the controversies, missteps, wars of words, stolen ideas, and clashes of ego as researchers around the world compete to develop the first successful malaria vaccine.

“It was my long association with malaria immunity and the search for vaccine candidates that prompted me to write about my own investigations and that of others in this century-long quest for a vaccine and to chronicle the advances, failures and the hopes for a safe and practical vaccine,” he said.

The 402-page book covers a variety of topics, including immunity, immunology, recombinant DNA, antibodies, the importance of microbe hunters, and the need for responsible leadership in the battle against malaria.

The book’s 13 chapters are:

Hunting Microbes – discusses how researchers identified the malaria-causing agent and its various life stages.

Malaria, the Sickness – discusses the pathology of malaria, the means for diagnosis, malaria’s impact, as well as attempts to control the disease before the vaccine.

The Immunity Alphabet – highlights the role of antibodies, cell-mediated immunity and the nature of the immune system.

From Milkmaids to Vaccines – describes the development of vaccines against bacteria and viruses.

Fundamental Findings – discusses early research on protective vaccines and immune mechanisms carried out using surrogates (principally birds and monkeys) for the disease as it occurs in humans.

Dreams about Vaccines – explains how, despite a half century of experimental efforts with birds and monkeys and a significant investment by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Institutes of Health, the US Army and Navy, and a host of other funding agencies, a protective malaria vaccine was not on the horizon.

Promises, Promises, Promises – discusses how after the development of a method to grow Plasmodium falciparum—the most deadly of the human malaria parasites—in the laboratory, a cadre of well-trained scientists directed their studies toward the biochemistry and immunology of these parasites in the hope of discovering a protective vaccine; and the troubles associated with the USAID malaria vaccine initiative.

Hunting for Protective Blood Stage Antigens – discusses how molecular techniques (monoclonal antibody and recombinant DNA) contributed to the identification of putative vaccine candidates.

Blocking Transmission – discusses the non-vaccine and vaccine interventions designed to prevent or reduce the mosquito transmission of malaria.

Battling Blood Stages – explains the connection between the immunity-inducing molecules (antigens) of the parasite stages living in the red blood cells and the development of vaccine candidates.

Of Mice and Men – chronicles the trials of malaria vaccines using mouse malarias and identification of the sporozoite and liver stage antigens; and the protection afforded by irradiated sporozoites and RTS,S (a vaccine).

Informed by the Immune System – describes the efforts of researchers using the immune response to identify the parasite molecules that elicit immunity and develop an immunity-provoking vaccine.

Why the Vaccine Remains Elusive – stresses that malaria vaccines, when they arrive, will assist in transforming nations in the developing world from a state of poverty to one rich in health.

“Advocacy for malaria vaccines needs more than philanthropic and research efforts,” Sherman said. “It requires that the public be educated and mobilized. It is my hope that this book will serve that purpose. Further, it is my hope that readers will learn some microbiology, some immunology and molecular biology, and come to better appreciate the perils and prospects for a malaria vaccine.”

Sherman joined UC Riverside in 1962 and retired in 2006. During his tenure, he served as chair of the Department of Biology (1973-1978); dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (1981-1988); acting executive vice chancellor (1993-1994); and chair of the Academic Senate (1997-2004). Currently he is a visiting scientist at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.

The author or coauthor of more than 150 scholarly papers and six books, Sherman also has edited two books on malaria. His previous book, Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World (American Society for Microbiology Press, 2007), focused on a dozen diseases that greatly influenced society, politics and culture.

He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University, Ill., where his lifelong research on the biochemistry of malaria parasites began.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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