I believe we can defeat malaria
Professor Michael Good is conducting the world’s first human trials for a blood-stage whole parasite vaccine against malaria. The disease is responsible for millions of deaths, mostly children and young mothers.
Early in his medical career Professor Michael Good was at a crossroad. His completion of a double degree in medicine and medical science had provided two worthy career paths.
It was 1983 and he was working in a leukaemia ward with 14 young patients.
“In those days leukaemia was truly a death sentence for most young people and I had 14 patients on my ward and I think of those 14, 11 did die, whereas today at least 11 would survive if not more,” he said.
It proved a tipping point for the young doctor.
“I said if I do science and make a discovery it could potentially end up saving the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. And as wonderful as the medical profession is, you’re saving one life or losing one life at a time.”
Research had won his heart. Professor Good, Principal Research Leader at Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, is on the cusp of delivering a body blow to malaria, a disease responsible for more than 400,000 deaths each year.
The CDC (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention) estimates the direct cost of malaria to be at least US$12 billion per year with the loss of economic growth manyfold higher.
Malaria has proved a challenging adversary, mutating regularly to evade the body’s immune system. Yet, Professor Good’s beaming smile and optimism reflect a confidence that the battle may soon be over.
In a novel approach, Professor Good and his team at his Laboratory of Vaccines for the Developing World have developed a way to effectively kill the malaria parasite.
“You take the malaria parasite and kill it in away so that it can’t grow or cause malaria and use that preparation to stimulate the body’s own immune system so that when exposed to the real malaria the body’s immune system can fight it effectively,” said Professor Good.
While other research around the world has targeted a number of selected proteins of the malaria parasite, Professor Good’s approach is to target all.
“Unfortunately the selective approach has not been very successful because the malaria parasite changes from one strain of malaria to another. It looks different to the immune system,” he said.
“We’re training the body to respond not to just one strain of the parasite but to all of the potential strains of parasites, which you might encounter from natural infections by mosquito.”
The vaccine he and his team have developed is currently in Phase 1 trials, where it is tested in humans to determine its safety.
Professor Good is one of those trial patients having received the vaccine himself.
“I wouldn’t ask people to do what I wouldn’t be prepared to do,” he said. “It just seemed to me to be the right thing to do.”
Research is not just a job for Professor Good. It’s his passion.
“We (scientists) look to discovery as a very important part of what we do. There is a great joy to discovering and seeing things and understanding things that we didn’t previously understand.
“In that moment in time you realise you know something about this universe that nobody else in the world actually knows. That is a real buzz. Then you write about it, publish it and talk about it and everybody knows.”
Professor Good knows there are no guarantees he has found the elusive key to malaria but is heartened by in vitro results and is hopeful the whole parasite approach will also be effective against one of the newer strains.
“When I was first studying malaria there were only four malaria parasite species that caused disease in humans,” he said.
“Now there are six. There is one that has come from a monkey, Plasmodium knowlesi, that’s a very deadly and dangerous parasite and that’s only come about in the last 10 years.
“It’s a very fast growing parasite and is as deadly as Plasmodium falciparum, which has always been regarded as the number one killer.”
Professor Good, a father of eight, knows too well the impact of malaria in developing countries. In Uganda, one of many malaria endemic countries he has visited, it kills between 200-300 people every day.
“As well as causing the deaths of many young children, it’s also responsible for a lot of intra-uterine deaths and miscarriages due to malaria. It has a huge toll on not just the born but the unborn as well.”
However, Professor Good’s research does not end there. He is also part of a team responsible for a Streptococcus A vaccine, also in Phase 1 trials. Strep A is highly contagious and responsible for more deaths than malaria.
A win for Professor Good against either of these two adversaries could literally change the future for millions of people.