Two hundred genetically modified mosquitoes with an experimental malaria vaccine packed inside a Chinese food takeout-style box inoculated 26 participants in a University of Washington study last month.
As reported by The Counter Signal, each participant placed their arms in the box to receive three to five jabs over 30-day intervals during the clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“We use the mosquitoes like they’re 1,000 small flying syringes,” Dr. Sean Murphy, physician and scientist at the university, told NPR.
Murphy, who also serves as the lead author on a Science Translational Medicine paper that details the vaccine trials, said the study would not be used to vaccinate millions of people. Instead, the team crafted the bloodsuckers because formulating a parasite delivered with a needle takes up too much time and money.
Using a flying insect during the early stages of the trial made more sense for delivery because the parasites mature much quicker.
Still, those tiny flying needles infected the subjects with a minor version of malaria but not enough to cause severe illness.
“Half of the individuals in each vaccine group did not develop detectable P. falciparum infection, and a subset of these individuals was subjected to a second [Controlled Human Malaria Infection] 6 months later and remained partially protected,” the study reads, according to Sceince.org. “These results support further development of genetically attenuated sporozoites as potential malaria vaccines.”
Carolina Reid, a volunteer, was one of the participants who came down with malaria.
“My whole forearm swelled and blistered,” Carolina Reid, volunteer, told NPR. “My family was laughing, asking like, ‘why are you subjecting yourself to this?'”
Reid, who joined the trial in 2018, pocketed a $4,100 payment for participating in the study.
Others who were protected against the disease only lasted a few months before the vaccine wore off.
Dr. Kirsten Lyke, a physician and vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told NPR, “they went old school with this one.”
“All things old become new again,” she said, adding that developing such genetically modified live parasites has proven to be a “total game changer.”
According to the university’s Twitter page, Lyke led the Phase 1 trials for the Pfizer/NioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and served as co-investigator for the Moderna and Novavax COVID-19 vaccine trials.
Researchers believe the experimental approach could result in a more effective vaccine in the future, considering the world’s first malaria jab only has an efficacy rate of 30-40%, according to the World Health Organization.
“We think we can obviously do better,” Stefan Kappe, an author of the study and parasitologist at the University of Washington Seattle and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, told NPR, adding that “increasing production capability to scale up manufacturing will require investment.”
The team said they would eventually transfer the vaccine into syringes rather than mosquitoes to get a more accurate dosage.