The research group led by Miguel Soares at Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC; Portugal) was specifically selected by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help finding a vaccine against malaria. For the next two years, the research team will be awarded 400 000 USD to assess if a specific sugar molecule expressed by Plasmodium, the causative agent of malaria, should be included as part of a novel malaria vaccine. This is the second time that the Miguel Soares and his team are recognized by the Gates Foundation.
More than 200 million people suffered from malaria worldwide, last year alone. The Gates Foundation sets a clear goal: "a world free of malaria". To achieve this, the foundation runs highly competitive initiatives where scientists propose bold and pioneering ways to find a vaccine against malaria. Less than two years ago, Miguel Soares team discovered that a specific sugar molecule -- the α-gal glycan -- expressed by bacterial components in the human gut microbiota can trigger a natural defense mechanism that is highly protective against malaria transmission. This research work was then published in the prestigious scientific journal Cell. Now, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited Miguel Soares to use these discoveries to help developing a vaccine against malaria.
An important outcome of this research project is "to guide the Foundation's decision on future investment on the use of glycans in candidate malaria vaccine that block Plasmodium transmission", says Miguel Soares. "Our project will assess if this sugar molecule can be used as a target for a malaria vaccine. Using the platform assays of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we will assess whether specific antibodies against α-gal can prevent malaria transmission", explains Miguel Soares.