The objectives were to evaluate the safety, reactogenicity, and allele-specific immunogenicity of the blood-stage malaria vaccine FMP1/AS02A in adults exposed to seasonal malaria and the impact of natural infection on vaccine-induced antibody levels.
We conducted a randomized, double-blind, controlled phase I clinical trial.
Bandiagara, Mali, West Africa, is a rural town with intense seasonal transmission of Plasmodium falciparum malaria.
Forty healthy, malaria-experienced Malian adults aged 18–55 y were enrolled.
The FMP1/AS02A malaria vaccine is a 42-kDa recombinant protein based on the carboxy-terminal end of merozoite surface protein-1 (MSP-142) from the 3D7 clone of P. falciparum, adjuvanted with AS02A. The control vaccine was a killed rabies virus vaccine (Imovax). Participants were randomized to receive either FMP1/AS02A or rabies vaccine at 0, 1, and 2 mo and were followed for 1 y.
Solicited and unsolicited adverse events and allele-specific antibody responses to recombinant MSP-142 and its subunits derived from P. falciparum strains homologous and heterologous to the 3D7 vaccine strain were measured.
Transient local pain and swelling were more common in the malaria vaccine group than in the control group (11/20 versus 3/20 and 10/20 versus 6/20, respectively). MSP-142 antibody levels rose during the malaria transmission season in the control group, but were significantly higher in malaria vaccine recipients after the second immunization and remained higher after the third immunization relative both to baseline and to the control group. Immunization with the malaria vaccine was followed by significant increases in antibodies recognizing three diverse MSP-142 alleles and their subunits.
FMP1/AS02A was well tolerated and highly immunogenic in adults exposed to intense seasonal malaria transmission and elicited immune responses to genetically diverse parasite clones. Anti-MSP-142 antibody levels followed a seasonal pattern that was significantly augmented and prolonged by the malaria vaccine.
Background: In sub-Saharan Africa the burden of death and disease from malaria is particularly severe. Most affected are young children under the age of five, in whom natural immunity against the malaria parasite has not yet developed. There are not yet any approved vaccines that would reduce this burden, although many research groups are currently developing potential vaccines. One such candidate vaccine is FMP1/AS02A. This vaccine is designed to trigger an immune response against a protein (merozoite surface protein-1, or MSP-1) found on the surface of the infectious, blood-stage form of the malaria parasite. Early-stage clinical trials have already been performed in healthy people in the United States, who were not exposed to clinical malaria, and in Kenyan adults who are exposed to malaria throughout the year. These studies did not identify any safety concerns regarding the candidate vaccine, which meant that it could progress further in clinical testing. As part of this next stage, a group of researchers wanted to examine the safety and ability of the vaccine to boost immune responses in an area of sub-Saharan Africa where people are not exposed to malaria throughout the year, but rather only in the wet season. The trial reported here was carried out in northeast Mali, in which 40 adults received either the FMP1/AS02A vaccine or a rabies vaccine for comparison, just at the start of the malaria transmission season. The researchers primarily looked at safety outcomes, collecting data on certain specific signs or symptoms up to 8 d after immunization, other reported symptoms up to 31 d after immunization, and any serious adverse events during a follow-up period of 364 d after immunization. The researchers also examined antibody levels in the participants' blood against the MSP-1 protein.
What this trial shows: The researchers found that participants receiving the FMP1/AS02A vaccine had more immediate symptoms at the injection site (for example, pain or swelling) than the comparison group did. Other general symptoms, both solicited and unsolicited, such as headache, muscle aches, fever, and infections, were also more common in the malaria vaccine group than in the group receiving the rabies vaccine. There were two serious adverse events in the vaccine group, but these were not judged to be related to the vaccination. Antibody levels against the MSP-1 protein increased in both study groups through the course of the rainy season (when individuals would be likely exposed to bites from malaria-infected mosquitoes) and subsequently fell after the end of the malaria transmission season. However, participants receiving the vaccine had higher antibody responses at all timepoints measured; the differences were statistically significant at some timepoints, but not at others. Finally, the researchers looked at antibody reactions against three different variants of the MSP-1 protein in sera from participants receiving the candidate vaccine and found that the sera reacted similarly to all three variants.
Strengths and limitations: The study protocol followed established procedures for phase I clinical trials of this type, which allows the data to be compared across studies. Randomization procedures were appropriate, and steps were taken to blind participants in the trial, as well as those assessing outcomes, to the intervention participants received. A limitation of this study, which can apply to other phase I studies in general, is that small numbers of participants were recruited. Therefore, the trial was not powered to detect statistically significant differences between participant groups. It is also not clear whether the higher antibody levels seen in the participants receiving the FMP1/AS02A vaccine would be biologically significant (that is, act to prevent clinical malaria cases), a question that would need to be addressed in further trials.
Contribution to the evidence: The safety results from this study are similar to those from other trials and confirm that no safety concerns have thus far been identified regarding the FMP1/AS02A vaccine, which has now progressed to efficacy testing. This study was also conducted in a population exposed to seasonal malaria, whereas previous trials had been done among people exposed to malaria year-round. Finally, results from the trial also suggest that this vaccine induces antibodies that recognize genetically diverse forms of the vaccine antigen.