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02 April 2019

Former police prosecutor turned scientist, Dr David Pattinson, is now a key member of an AITHM research team involved in a major international mission to eliminate malaria, which claims nearly half a million lives each year.

The postdoctoral research fellow and immunologist is participating in a five-year, €20 million European Union collaborative project, OptiMalVax, which aims to develop a multi-stage sub-unit vaccine against the parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which is the deadliest cause of malaria.

“I am working on the identification of antigens, (molecules capable of inducing an immune response), which we hope will form part of the multi-stage vaccine that is being developed,” said Dr Pattinson, whose own contribution to the project is being funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The current malaria vaccine targets just one protein on the surface of the parasite during the liver stage of the disease.

“From the time you are bitten by an infected mosquito, it takes only minutes for a Plasmodium parasite to infect your liver, where it will replicate for the next five days, before entering into the blood,” Dr Pattinson said.

“The current vaccine induces antibodies against a single protein on the surface of the parasite, which can stop the parasite before reaching the liver, or if antigen-specific circulating T cells find an infected cell during that period, they can kill it. But if they don’t – and they only have five days – the parasite becomes a merozoite and the vaccine antigen will no longer be effective.”

The OptiMalVax consortium of researchers plan to make a vaccine which comprises individual proteins from different parts of the parasite’s life cycle within humans and mosquitoes.

“This will include targets in the liver-stage, blood-stage, and a transmission blocking antigen. The vaccine will include up to 8 antigens, 2 from each stage of the parasites life-cycle,” Dr Pattinson said.

DNA and self-replicating RNA vaccines are the mainstay vaccine platforms of his research, along with adenovirus. All three include the genomic code of antigens. Technological advances have facilitated his ability to rapidly assess promising antigen candidates.

“Now, when I find a new antigen that I want to evaluate, its genomic sequence has already been published and can be accessed by email from a company on the other side of the world,” he said.

Late last year, Dr Pattinson also spent one month working with the Peter Liljestrom group at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden to learn about the development of a self-replicating RNA vaccine platform.

“I went over to learn how to make the RNA vaccine. We want to use this platform because it is quick to develop which will help us to investigate many antigens in a short period of time,” he said.

Dr Pattinson believes the OptiMalVax consortium could be a game changer.

 “The consortiums strength comes from the fact that it is a large group of specialists all working together to achieve the same goal, and with considerable financial backing” he said.

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