Biology grad helping develop breakthrough malaria vaccine
A long sought-after vaccine for malaria, a disease that killed 660,000 people and infected more than 200 million others in 2010, is one huge step closer, thanks to a promising breakthrough developed in part by Peter Billingsley, PhD’85 (Biology).
The renowned entomologist is part of a recent study published in Science, one of the world’s most prestigious academic journals. The results made headlines around the world, because it is the first time a clinical trial has shown 100 percent success for a vaccine protecting against infection by the mosquito-borne disease.
While Peter is thrilled with the results so far, he recognizes that it is just one step, though an important one, towards the final goal of a vaccine that will protect travelers and people in Africa from this deadly disease. There is still field testing ahead over the next five years, after which time the vaccine should be ready for licensing. The results are the best to date and the possibilities for future implementation are outstanding.
For decades, scientists have been trying to find an effective malaria vaccine. Peter is a senior director at Sanaria, a biotechnology company in Maryland whose goal is to eradicate malaria from the planet through vaccination. Peter has played a pivotal role in developing the vaccine to the point at which it could be studied in clinical trials, and in this particular trial he oversaw all the vaccine manufacture and formulation from a quality assurance perspective and helped with data analysis.
“Developing a vaccine that could save so many lives is huge motivating factor for my work,” he says. “I have spent a lot of the time in the field and met people who died from malaria. I, like my colleagues at Sanaria and many others, want to do something about it. Sanaria is a place where people feel a moral imperative to really make a difference. There are a lot of driven people here, and it is extremely invigorating.”
There are currently drugs that will cure people infected with malaria. There are also numerous ways to prevent people from getting it, such as sleeping under bed nets, wearing insect repellent, and using outdoor insecticides. The problem is that these cannot lead to the long-term goal of eradicating malaria because none are sufficiently effective or sustainable in the long term. Spraying insecticides over large areas (which has to be done two to three times a year) helps suppress mosquito population, “but when you stop,” says Peter, “the mosquitoes will return.” Drugs can cure a person, but victims will likely transmit malaria to several other mosquitoes by the time they are treated, and the drugs do not provide long-term protection.
“If you have a vaccine that gives people immunity for a long period – it doesn’t have to be for life – you can get to the point where malaria will be gone and won’t come back. Sustainability is the key issue, and that is where a good vaccine comes out on top of all other methods,” explains Peter.
His interest in malaria goes back to his Queen’s PhD days when he was studying blood-feeding insects. Peter credits his supervisor, the late biology professor Al Downe, with helping to inspire his passion for science and striving to do things that many said could not be done.
“There was a great team of people in Al Downe’s lab during my PhD days and we helped each other out a lot. We were very critical of one another’s work, but in a good way. We were all taught to think independently and critique one another, and that has always stayed with me,” says Peter. “My enthusiasm for science research was definitely fostered at Queen’s.”