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Malaria: Searching for treatment

How research in Ireland may help find an elusive vaccine against malaria.

Trinity College Professor Luke O'Neill, pointing to the formula for the protein called "Mal." O'Neill is working to find a malaria vaccine. (Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

DUBLIN — Here in Ireland, a country not much troubled by mosquitoes in summer, some of the most exciting research in the struggle against mosquito-borne malaria is taking place. It has to do with the discovery of Mal in the laboratories of professor Luke O’Neill at Trinity College Dublin.

Mal is not a person — rather, it's a protein that helps determine whether a person succumbs to malaria after a mosquito bite. Researchers working at Trinity — who are collaborating with a team under another Trinity scholar based at Oxford University, professor Adrian Hill — believe they are close to finding an effective vaccine against the mosquito-borne disease.

I meet the tousled-haired, fast-talking O’Neill at Trinity’s Science Gallery beneath a large sign saying, “Infectious,” the title of an exhibition he's organized to show how infections spread in the human body. He takes me to a large wall exhibit, like a giant newspaper page full of print with no gaps between the letters, that is the chemical formula for Mal.

He explains that when the human body senses the presence of the mosquito-injected parasite that causes malaria, a set of sensors locks onto the intruder and sends a message to Mal, which wakes up the immune system to fight it. It doesn’t always succeed, said O’Neill, who directs Trinity’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology.

“The mystery has always been, why do some people get malaria and others not — well in part it’s Mal,” O’Neill said.

Hill, the director of the Jenner Institute and professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, has shown that there are two variants of Mal in humans — the good and the bad — and these variants determine how the immune system responds.

The good type of Mal organizes a successful counterattack against malaria, whereas the bad Mal is either underactive, or it is overactive and destructive, like friendly fire. O’Neill calls the good type the “Goldilocks effect”: not too hot, not too cold, just right. The finding of these pathways in the body is, he believes, the key to a successful fight against malaria.

The team working under Hill is making progress in trying to activate Mal in specific ways to develop the vaccine. “Trials among chimpanzees have had a 80 to 90 percent success rate,” O’Neill said, “so that gives us hope with humans.”