At the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2018 in July Lister Institute Fellow Professor Simon Draper, along with his colleague Professor Matt Higgins, led an exciting and informative exhibit on the development of designer vaccines that can prevent malaria infections.
Malaria is a serious global health issue that affects hundreds of millions of people every year and was identified as the cause of death of an estimated 445,000 to 731,000 people in 2016 alone. To discuss the issue Professor Draper presented the Designer Malaria Vaccines exhibit at the Royal Society’s annual event to inform, educate and entertain the public through games and information.
Malaria is an infectious disease carried and spread by mosquitoes in certain parts of the world. Mosquitoes transmit disease-carrying parasitic protozoans called Plasmodium into the human liver and then blood stream which can lead to the development of malaria around 10-15 days after the exposure. The disease attacks the human system once out the liver and in the blood and causes a range of symptoms, from fever and tiredness to coma and death.
Although progress in limiting exposure by humans to malaria-carrying mosquitoes has been made in some of the geographical areas most at risk, and a variety of preventative treatments and options are available, there have been significant challenges in creating a universal vaccine for the disease.
The nature and behaviour of the Plasmodium parasite means it is able to guard against traditional approaches to vaccine development, disguising its presence and activity in the bloodstream by penetrating red blood cells and avoiding detection by antibodies that would otherwise be able to find and attack it. Moreover, the malaria parasite can change the many hundreds of proteins found in its surface coat, to help avoid the immune system and attack by antibodies.
However, one protein called RH5 has been shown to break this mould – it can be identified by antibodies on the malaria parasite, and attacked by antibodies because, unlike all the others, this protein doesn’t actually change during Plasmodium’s efforts to disguise itself. The RH5 protein is now known to bind to the human protein basigin on the surface of red blood cells.
The vaccines Professor Draper and his team have developed prevent RH5 from binding to basigin, meaning the parasites cannot invade and ‘hide’ within red blood cells and can then be destroyed in the blood stream. The research involves precisely identifying which part of the RH5 molecule is the best target for an attack by antibodies.
At the Royal Society event Professors Draper and Higgins brought this work to the public, including school children, in an interactive exhibit that used a variety of games and presentations to discuss the issue.
An interactive mapping game was created in order to demonstrate the challenges of planning how to limit malaria in a certain area. Participants were given a budget to spend on different intervention resources (such as bed nets, vaccines and drugs) on a fictional island and had to try and develop the best combination of deployed resources to maximise their effectiveness.
A second game involved participants acting as the body’s immune system. The objective was to attempt to detect the conserved elements on a variable parasite (i.e. the RH5 protein on a changing Plasmodium entity) in order to demonstrate how this is carried out in the lab. This helped the event attendees better appreciate the nature of designer vaccines for malaria and understand how they function when deployed.
The third aspect of the exhibit was the presentation of 3D models of RH5 that demonstrate how it binds to basigin and critical antibodies present in the human bloodstream. By showing clearly the complexity in how the critical malaria surface protein binds to the human receptor in a red blood cell the exhibit helped visitors appreciate the challenge researchers face in designing novel vaccine components.
The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition was held for a week between Monday the 2nd of July and Sunday the 8th of July at the organisation’s London headquarters. During this period many members of the public were exposed to Professor Draper’s work, helping to understand, promote and disseminate this important research.
Professor Draper values opportunities such as this to discuss important global public health challenges with both researchers and non-researchers alike. His laboratory work, supported by the Lister Institute, is in part focussed on further developing these vaccines in order to develop new immunisation medicines.
Alongside his colleague Professor Matt Higgins, Professor Draper has successfully immunised human volunteers in Oxford and Africa using RH5 and has elucidated the structure of the RH5 vaccine.
Professor Draper is a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow and Professor of Vaccinology and Translational Medicine at the Jenner Institute in the Nuffield Department of Medicine. The Lister Institute is very pleased to have played a role in supporting some of the research that has led to the Designer Vaccines exhibit, and we’re looking forward to hearing more about Professor Draper’s progress in the future.