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Brandon Sack, a Center for Infectious Disease Research scientist who co-authored the two studies on a new malaria-resistant parasite, on a trip to Kenya. (Photo courtesy of CIDR)

Scientists working at several institutions across the globe have identified a new antibody that protects against malaria, a potentially revolutionary discovery that could lead to new and improved malaria treatments and even the holy grail of a universal malaria vaccine.

The antibody is detailed in two separate reports published Monday in the scientific journal Nature Medicine. It was discovered independently by two groups of researchers, one of which was led by scientists from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the National Institutes of Health.

The antibody, called CIS43, protects against malaria better than any other known antibody, according to Dr. Marie Pancera, a researcher in Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division who co-led that study.

Both groups studying the antibody used a unique humanized mouse liver model at Seattle’s Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR), leading CIDR scientists to notice similarities in their work. CIDR says the liver model is the best way to model how the malaria parasite infects humans because it allows researchers to grow human liver material in mice, giving them an insight to the very early stages of a malaria infection.

An “immunofluorescent microscopy” image of a mouse model liver. Red specks show where the new antibody has bound to the malaria parasite. (Photo courtesy of CIDR)

“One of our immune system’s biggest defenses are antibodies, which circulate throughout your body and bind/stick to very specific pieces of invading pathogens,” Dr. Brandon Sack, a CIDR researcher and co-author on both the papers, told GeekWire in an email interview. “The antibodies [the researchers] found in these papers bind to a newly identified piece of the malaria parasite and render it unable to make it through the skin and into the liver where the parasite starts an infection.”

After noticing this similarity, CIDR researchers joined forces with the various researchers involved to speed up the discovery process, leading to the papers published Monday.

In addition to the Fred Hutch and the NIH, the research included work by Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Johns Hopkins University,  the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and Maryland-based biotech company Sanaria.

The discovery of this antibody could be a game-changer in malaria prevention.

Although malaria is uncommon in the U.S. and other industrialized countries, almost half the world’s population is at risk for the disease. In 2015, 212 million people were infected with malaria and 429,000 people died from the disease that year, according to the World Health Organization.

Targeted prevention and treatment has steadily reduced the number of malaria cases and deaths in past decades, but the malaria parasite is difficult to combat. Treatments often have to be taken daily to be effective and can be difficult to access, particularly for those most at risk.

There is only one malaria vaccine approved for use, developed in part by Seattle nonprofit PATH. It requires four shots over a series of months, and even then it is only about 50 percent effective.

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