Malaria is a vector borne disease, transmitted by the bite of a mosquito. During the mosquito’s blood meal, it regurgitates Plasmodium, a parasitic protozoa that embeds itself in the patient’s liver until it matures, releasing its progeny to begin destroying the patient’s red blood cells. There is no cure, and antibiotics only combat the disease-causing parasite in the blood. In 2012, an estimated 207 million clinical episodes of malaria occurred, resulting in 627,000 deaths.
Knowing these facts all too well, Dr. Stephen Hoffman of Sanaria, a biotech he founded with his wife Dr. Kim Lee Sim, sought to develop a vaccine for malaria. Early in his career, Dr. Hoffman worked for the navy, traveling to tropical locales to study and treat endemic diseases. While common diseases of the developing world such as typhoid and cholera had defined treatment regimens and were rarely fatal if caught early, malaria was often a death sentence, owing to the lack of medicine and infrastructure to handle patients. “Too many children died who I thought I was saving,” said Dr. Hoffman.
His quest to find a vaccine hit a few snags. Multiple times, when his teams at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington and the now defunct Celera Genomics thought they had cracked the malaria code, they injected themselves with their vaccine concoction then let mosquitos transmit the malaria parasite to them. The vaccines did not work, and the team members got very sick (all recovered with proper treatment). Dr. Hoffman kept an optimistic mindset throughout the ordeal though, stating “[s]cience is science. It’s not magic. To have the expectation everything will work the first time around is fantasy.”
Now, that fantasy is becoming a reality. Through multiple grants from the NIH and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and an “earmark” from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Dr. Hoffman developed the first working vaccine for malaria, called PfSPZ. It showed 100% success in clinical trials conducted in Africa, and is now being tested in 6 more clinical trials through the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), Mali, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, and Germany. While successful, it is still slow and expensive work.