Moderna Therapeutics said Tuesday that they are introducing a first in-human vaccine for malaria.
Moderna developed a vaccine to prevent the disease in people, but more attention is focused on Moderna’s development of immunotherapies that aim to make the immune system more sensitive to cancer or autoimmune diseases.
The company is one of a handful of “modern health care” companies seeking to address diseases that are well-known, in large part due to treatments that work, like cancer immunotherapy that helps tumors kill themselves.
While Moderna’s low-dose vaccine works for much older children and young adults who cannot usually be vaccinated with traditional vaccines, up to 15 percent of children ages six months to nine years, who are at higher risk for infection from dengue and leishmaniasis, receive no treatment.
In 2016, Moderna reported promising data for another vaccine it developed for dengue, known as dengavirine, showing some slowing in symptoms. The focus was then on how to make dengue more infectious — through genetic changes in the virus — but the second trial found dengue infections did not increase. Moderna said in January that, in response to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health officials worldwide are setting up strategies to control dengue within their countries.
In the trial, which is intended to be the first in-human clinical trial for low-dose vaccination of children age 6-11, 6- to 11-year-olds with dengue will receive about 300 nictotine shots over the course of their lives. Dr. Laurent Mâchville, a co-principal investigator in the trial, said the majority of the children were immunized in the first six months.
“I can confirm that there was a benefit,” Mâchville said. He said the ability of the vaccine to bring down viral loads in the children’s blood was better than expected. Nictotine, which contains a synthetic stimulant, is designed to be combined with a larger, live vaccine to combat malaria.
In clinical trials, the vaccine had a 65 percent overall reduction in the number of dengue viruses in blood, Dr. James Beggs, another co-principal investigator, said. The next trial will focus on cancer-related immune responses.
Malaria is a multi-dimensional disease, with many subtypes and reservoirs of the parasite in which people may be infected. Moderna said that scientists who have worked with the parasite, which has unknown physical properties, are working to develop ways to render resistant strains of the parasite so that it does not kill people. That would probably be a big hurdle, Dr. Mâchville said.
“Ultimately, the challenge has to be that we have to contain the parasite if we want to eradicate it.”
Moderna, in news released a year ago, said the dengue vaccine should be fully developed in late 2020. There are no vaccines approved for malaria, which is responsible for over 500,000 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization.
Moderna has invested over $500 million in the malaria vaccine, in part by raising $300 million in private investments.
The company said that its results in humans are preliminary, and final results would take several more years. But so far, Moderna said, they look promising.
Moderna develops immunotherapies, or proteins or molecules that turn the immune system on to cancer or other diseases. Moderna’s main research and development site is in Cambridge, Mass., and the company is also in Israel and Canada. Moderna was founded in 2013, when it received $450 million in venture capital from a consortium that included the Menlo Park, Calif., investment firm Kleiner Perkins. That round of funding brought Moderna’s total venture capital raised to $1.2 billion.
Moderna’s CEO, Stephane Bancel, said in an interview that the malaria vaccine was important to him for two reasons.