Scientists to Pay Volunteers Thousands to Be Exposed to Deadliest Form of Malaria

Within the next 18 months, medical researchers will be asking people in Seattle to volunteer to be exposed to the deadliest form of malaria to help them test the effectiveness of vaccine candidates.

The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute is collaborating with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative to accelerate malaria vaccine research by opening a new vaccine testing center in Seattle's south Lake Union neighborhood.

Scientists at the center will use early testing of vaccines to weed out those that don't work so they can speed up research on the ones that are effective. Malaria vaccine testing has already begun at a second site in the United States, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland, and is also being conducted at labs in England and the Netherlands.

"We're particularly excited by the center's location in Seattle, a community where many people have an interest in global health issues and, as a result, are willing to volunteer for such an important cause -- to help save the lives of young children in some of the world's poorest countries," said Dr. Christian Loucq, Malaria Vaccine Initiative director.

Malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, kills more than a million people each year, most of them children. Deaths doubled in Africa over the past 20 years due to resistance to existing drugs and insecticides.

Seattle volunteers will be paid an estimated $2,000 or more to hold a paper cup containing infected mosquitoes against their arm, waiting for the insects to bite. Symptoms usually develop within nine to 11 days, and volunteers will be treated for malaria when the first parasites show up in their blood. The treatments last three days.

In the related project at Walter Reed, where hundreds of people have been exposed to the malaria virus, not one person has gotten seriously ill, said Dr. Patrick Duffy, head of the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute's malaria research programs.

The compensation is for time and inconvenience and the amount must be approved by an independent panel before the study begins.

"It's a sensitive issue. They want to make sure it's fair ... but not so much that somebody would say, 'I can't turn down this opportunity'," Duffy said.

Testing subjects will get no sicker than someone with the flu and most won't even miss a day of work after being exposed to malaria and then treated, he said. They will need to stay in a downtown hotel for a few days and get daily medical tests, but can leave their room during the day because treatment for the virus would begin before it becomes contagious.

"The parasite has an incredibly complex lifecycle. It takes on many different forms during its different lifecycle stages. One form infects the mosquito. That form develops late. The form that makes people sick develops early. We'll be treating this early before the form that can be transmitted is developed," Duffy said.

After a story about the vaccine center ran in The Seattle Times on Wednesday, the project's e-mail box was filled with hundreds of inquiries from people who wanted to participate in the vaccine trials, Duffy said.

He said people in Seattle have a strong sense of altruism.

"I don't think most people would volunteer for this unless they felt like they were doing it for a larger purpose," Duffy said.

The Seattle vaccine testing center will be built this year and the first trial with just six volunteers is expected to be conducted in the summer of 2009, paid for with between $4 million and $5 million from the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which was created with a grant of $50 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Additional trials are expected to cost between $1 million and $2 million and each one would require about 26 volunteers.

The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute has been working on tropical diseases for about 30 years and is home to one of the largest malaria research programs in the United States.

Although the institute has been developing malaria vaccines of its own, the testing program will be open to vaccine candidates from around the world.

Duffy said the project at Walter Reed, where he worked before coming to the institute in Seattle, has helped one promising vaccine candidate get to the point where it is about 50 percent effective at preventing malaria.

He said that vaccine is an inspiration to everyone who is working to find a way to save people from malaria.

"We have a partially effective vaccine now and there's no reason why we can't get a fully effective vaccine," Duffy said.

Bill and Melinda Gates announced in October they would seek worldwide eradication of the disease rather than just control. Their foundation has committed $860 million to malaria programs and another $650 million to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.