The PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative has hooked up with Austrian biotechnology company Intercell to evaluate the potential of recombinant malaria antigens from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in combination with Intercell’s novel proprietary adjuvant IC31.

The animal studies, which will assess whether selected NIH antigens formulated with IC31 can trigger an immune response, will be conducted at Intercell and funded by the Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative, a US-based global development programme set up in 1999 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. First results from the studies are expected by the end of this year.

As Dr Christian Loucq, director of the PATH initiative, pointed out, adjuvants have been identified by donors and international agencies as a “critical gap” in the long haul towards a viable malaria vaccine. According to Intercell’s chief scientific officer Alexander von Gabain, IC31 has been shown to facilitate the induction of specific antibodies, as well as a strong T-cell response, “a feature needed to protect against an intracellular pathogen, such as plasmodia”.

Worldwide, there are around 400-900 million cases of malaria each year and 1-3 million deaths as a consequence. A number of companies, ranging from major players such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to niche operators like the Dutch Crucell, the German Apovia and the UK’s Adprotech, are working on malaria vaccines. However, market entry is still some way off.

GSK’s investigational malaria vaccine, RTS,S/AS02/Mosquirix, continues to show promise. Backed by the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, the candidate could move into Phase III trials in the latter half of this year, paving the way for potential regulatory submissions in 2011.