As a malaria researcher, you often wonder what it would be like to have a malaria infection. At least, I do. It is a topic you work on every day, but being safe in Europe your chance of getting infected is zero, even when travelling to an endemic region we have the luxury of prophylactic pills to prevent an infection. People living in these regions don’t.
But I’m in luck! I have the chance to experience a malaria infection in the controlled environment of the University of Oxford during a clinical trial to test the efficacy of a vaccine.
Malaria is an infectious disease that is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. It causes high fever, chills, flu-like symptoms, and severe anemia. Malaria is especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children who are experiencing the disease for the first time. Each year, 250 million people are infected and almost one million die.
Current treatments are inefficient and resistance against drugs is rising.
These depressing facts indicate that the need for an effective vaccine is very high.
Several research groups across the world are developing vaccines against the parasite causing malaria (Plasmodium falciparum). Eventually, these vaccines should be tested in a clinical trial.
Human experimental malaria infections are carried out under strictly controlled laboratory and clinical conditions. During a trial, volunteers are exposed to either the bites of laboratory-reared infected mosquitoes or injected with infected blood.
These studies are very important since they provide early information on vaccine efficacy.
When you tell people you’re enrolled in a malaria challenge trial, their first reaction is: “You’re nuts!!”
People associate malaria of course with:
But since this is a trial, the researchers will actually stop the infection with an effective treatment from the moment it is detected, so the symptoms should be very low or none (hopefully).
The big challenge with these studies is actually the intense follow-up with blood sampling twice daily.
So I will likely look more like this at the end:
|Note: this is a picture from a heroin addict, taking a few blood samples doesn't make your arm look this shitty...|
A group of 25 people is sitting here since 8 AM waiting to get a malaria shot. Some do it to help the cause, others do it for the adventure, but most are attracted by the large compensation you receive at the end (4 digit number). Of course, it would be really difficult to find volunteers for these studies without compensating them (and doing these studies on prisoners is illegal now).
Some people look scared, is it actually a good idea to get infected with such a deadly disease? Others didn't show up: second thoughts, family issues,...
The doctors try to prevent most worries by giving you all possible information during the intake conversation (a month before the start) and you are allowed to leave the study at any moment.
In a moment, my guinea pig colleagues and me will be injected with 5mL of infected blood through a catheter that was inserted in our veins.
After the infection we wait for an hour during which we get a little survival package consisting of medication and... a card!
Next we will have to… wait. The infected red blood cells are diluted in my blood and will start to multiply until their numbers are high enough to be detected using a microscope. After this, the trial is done and I get a standard treatment to kill all the parasites and can go home.
The scientists will then analyze all the blood samples from vaccine recipients and controls (my group). The most important result will be visible to all of us:
Will the vaccine prevent or delay the clinical symptoms?
If you would be interested in joining a clinical malaria challenge you can always check these websites: