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Anopheles mosquito
Anopheles mosquitoes are carriers for the malaria parasite. (CDC Photo / James Gathany)

It’s Mosquito Week at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a time to focus on the global campaign to eradicate malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. And if delving into the nuts and bolts of developing an effective malaria vaccine doesn’t grab you, how about adding a “Star Trek” angle?

That’s exactly what Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is doing in today’s Gates Notes posting to kick off Mosquito Week.

How did Gates go from science fiction to epidemiological fact? Even Mr. Spock would find the logical progression fascinating.

The malaria virus is transmitted by a tiny parasite that mosquitoes carry from host to host as they go about their bloodsucking ways. It’d be nice to have a vaccine that can train your immune system to recognize the parasite and fight it off before the virus takes hold of its victim. Unfortunately, the parasite has developed its own defense against that strategy.

Gates noted that the parasite is designed to shuffle up to 60 different proteins to present a new molecular “shape” to your immune system every few days. That throws off the mechanism that makes it possible for the immune system to recognize and attack an invader.

This is why it’s so hard to come up with an effective vaccine. Gates compared the challenge to a scene from a “Star Trek” episode titled “Whom Gods Destroy,” in which Spock has to decide which of two identical-looking Captain Kirks is actually a deranged shapeshifter.

Spock could just stand by and wait for the right moment while the two Kirks duked it out, but Gates said it’s tougher to fight real-life shapeshifters:

“You might think we could create a vaccine that simply recognizes all the different shapes of the parasite. Unfortunately, that’s not practical. The only vaccine we have ever done that with is for a type of pneumonia. It is very expensive to manufacture and covers only a dozen shapes or so, versus the 60 shapes in one malaria infection and the many hundreds across all malaria parasites worldwide.

“The malaria community (including our foundation) has been working for years on a vaccine to protect you in stage 1, before the infection takes hold. This vaccine, called RTS,S, teaches your immune system to hunt for a bit of protein that is always on the surface of the parasite. Unfortunately, the protection provided by RTS,S is not strong enough for long enough to help us make real headway toward eradication. And there are other forms of protection (such as bednets and insecticides) that are more cost-effective for saving lives.”

So is it futile to look for a vaccine that’s effective enough and inexpensive enough to shut down the shapeshifters? Gates said advances in biotech are keeping hope alive:

“For example, scientists are working on new approaches that we hope will trigger the immune system to create long-lived, antibody-generating cells. Another promising idea is to create synthetic antibodies rather than trying to get your immune system to make natural ones. These monoclonal antibodies have revolutionized the treatment of cancer and inflammatory disease, and they could do the same for infectious diseases like malaria.”

Gates said investments in bednets and other non-vaccine strategies for prevention and treatment have already reduced malaria deaths by 42 percent since 2000. His foundation also backs research into novel strategies for mosquito control. “When I see how far we have come and how much we have learned, I am as optimistic as ever that we can beat this clever shapeshifter,” Gates wrote.

Check out the Gates Foundation’s website to get an overview of its malaria-fighting efforts, and keep an eye on Gates Notes for more Mosquito Week posts, including a couple of Shark Week angles from past years.

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