March 15, 2015

Research Roundup: discoveries in malaria research, remaining barriers to the development of an Ebola vaccine, and a diagnostic for maternal survival

Senior Program Assistant

Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have identified the protein that explains why people with blood type O are protected from coma and death resulting from severe cases of malaria. Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for nearly all fatal cases of malaria, releases the RIFIN protein, which causes red blood cells to stick to one another and restrict blood flow, resulting in tissue damage and death. The study, published last week, establishes that the RIFIN protein insufficiently attaches to type O blood cells, despite its strong adherence to type A blood cells. This results in different health outcomes for those with type O blood, as they avoid the severe effects of the parasite.

An article in Al Jazeera explored the history of Ebola vaccine research and development (R&D) and the barriers to conducting clinical trials in Sierra Leone today. While Ebola vaccine research began more than ten years ago, multiple promising vaccine candidates have remained in limbo due to a paucity of funding. Last fall, the US government partnered with pharmaceutical companies to expedite the R&D of experimental Ebola vaccines in light of the epidemic in West Africa. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. are preparing for clinical trials in Sierra Leone involving 6,000-8,000 health workers. Health workers have expressed concern regarding the safety of the vaccine, and outreach to health workers and potential participants—which the CDC plans to conduct a few weeks prior to the start of the trial—may present a greater challenge than originally anticipated.

A new diagnostic device, called the Microlife Vital Signs Alert, could save up to 70,000 mothers each year by alerting health care workers when a woman is at risk of going into shock due to blood loss during childbirth, or if her blood pressure is dangerously high. The device, which only costs US $20, is easy to use and interpret, enabling health care workers—regardless of education and training—to identify when a woman needs to be taken to a hospital with a simple red light.