After COVID-19 BioNTech turns its mRNA vaccine tech on malaria
BioNTech, the pioneering mRNA company responsible for one of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines, is now looking to develop an mRNA malaria vaccine. Working with the World Health Organization the company hopes to begin human clinical trials sometime next year.
Eighteen months ago mRNA vaccine technology was an experimental, unproven outlier sitting on the fringes of mainstream science. The extraordinary success of two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in 2020 has led to a number of new innovations on the horizon.
BioNTech is now looking to build on its COVID-19 success with several new mRNA vaccines in development. Alongside HIV and tuberculosis mRNA vaccines, the company has now announced development of a malaria vaccine.
The broad project is part of a greater initiative to eradicate malaria. Beyond developing and trialing an mRNA malaria vaccine, BioNTech is working with the WHO and Africa’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up mRNA production facilities in Africa. The goal is to increase access to these vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, so when a vaccine candidate proves successful in trials it can be swiftly produced and distributed in the places that need it most.
“We are more than grateful to be part of the joint efforts of the Eradicate Malaria project,” says BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin. “Together with our partners, we will do whatever it takes to develop a safe and effective mRNA-based malaria vaccine that will prevent the disease, reduce mortality and ensure a sustainable solution for the African continent and other regions affected by this disease.”
The current challenge in developing an effective mRNA malaria vaccine is homing in on the best antigen to use in the vaccine. Current COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, for example, direct protein factories within our cells to produce the infamous coronavirus spike protein.
Most malaria vaccines in development teach our immune system to recognize the circumsporozoite protein (CSP). This protein is secreted by the malaria parasite in the earliest stages of infection.
BioNTech says it has not decided on what specific antigen target its malaria vaccine will use, but several targets are currently being investigated, including CSP and other yet-to-be revealed antigens. The most promising antigens from pre-clinical work will be chosen for human trials to commence at some point in 2022.
This is by no means the only mRNA malaria vaccine currently in development. Last month another candidate published positive preclinical results. That mRNA candidate targets the circumsporozoite protein, however, it is still some way off human clinical trials.
This larger project to eradicate malaria involves participation from the European Union, the European Investment Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Director-General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says the goal of eradicating malaria will not be easy but the advent of mRNA technology makes this ambitious proposal a realistic possibility.
“Malaria has been with us for millennia,” says Tedros. “Eradicating it has been a long-held but unattainable dream. But new technologies like mRNA are making what was once a fantasy, a possibility.”