Photo/Illutration Takafumi Tsuboi, foreground, director of Ehime University’s Proteo-Science Center, and other staff members research a malaria vaccine on April 9 in Matsuyama. (Mihoko Terada)

MATSUYAMA--One day in early April, staff at a university laboratory here pulled a container of blood kept at 37 degrees out of a fridge-like incubator in a lab.

Cultured within it are malarial parasites, said Eizo Takashima, 45, an associate professor of life science at the Division of Malaria Research of Ehime University’s Proteo-Science Center.

Researchers at the center began a joint project in April to develop a vaccine to control the spread of the infectious disease, as malaria annually claims the lives of 400,000 individuals--mainly children in Africa.

The scientists are joining with a pharmaceutical firm and nongovernmental organization to bridge the “valley of death” to save a myriad of people killed by malaria.

With an eye on addressing the global issue of malaria, the project team at Ehime University will use a subsidy to overcome the difficulty in bringing lab studies to commercial fruition, a problem likened to a valley of death.

 “Even when researchers make possible beneficial findings, they do nothing more than present the results in academic theses,” said Takafumi Tsuboi, 64, director of the Ehime University's malaria research center. “Another problem is that pharmaceutical companies cannot generate good sales or make much profits in poor countries even though they are spending hundreds of millions of yen in developing vaccines.”

Malaria is an infectious disorder transmitted by mosquitoes with the parasites.

When bitten by mosquitoes, malarial parasites invade human bodies and proliferate in red blood cells. They break through cell walls within two days or so to move to other erythrocytes, causing high fever, anemia and other conditions and causing death in the worst cases.

A report released by the World Health Organization shows there were 230 million malaria patients in 2018 with 400,000 left dead. The malarial parasites cultivated in the laboratory were sampled from patients.

Although a vaccine to prevent malaria from being transmitted from mosquitoes to humans was already developed outside Japan, it has not proven significantly effective.

For that reason, the Japanese research center started a program to introduce a new vaccine to administer to humans, to stop malarial parasites from growing in mosquitoes.

Once the mosquitoes have bitten humans who have been administered the vaccine, the insects cannot carry the pathogen.

Funded by a subsidy totaling 500 million yen ($4.6 million) from April, the two-year project is intended to make a vaccine clinically available against falciparum malaria, which spreads primarily in Africa.

Under the plan, the scientists will create the anti-malaria agent through studying the proteins on the parasites’ surface that have various functions.

More specifically, the university will work with Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co. and global nongovernmental organization PATH to proceed with the preclinical development of the vaccine based on abundant data gathered in the college’s basic research of a malarial protein called Pfs230.

The research institute has also embarked on another project to develop a vaccine to deal with tertian malaria, whose patients have been reported in Asia as well.

Underlying the center’s endeavor is its desire to improve society.

“We are living in a global society,” Takashima said. “We will nurture young personnel who can contribute to the world through their research from a global perspective.”

The Proteo-Science Center was established in 2013 when its predecessor, the Cell-Free Science and Technology Research Center, set up 10 years earlier, was merged with a medical application research division.

Its exclusive “wheat cell-free technology” to synthesize proteins freely based on genetic information helped the newly installed institute to lead the life science research.

The center’s Division of Malaria Research is comprised of Tsuboi, who has been involved in the malarial study since 1990, and 20 other staff members and students.