East Coast Fever (ECF) kills over 1 million animals every year in eastern, central and southern Africa. It’s caused by a parasite within a parasite, a one-celled organism called Theileria parva that travels inside a tick. When the tick bites an animal, T. parva shuttles into the animal’s bloodstream. The negative impact on the African economy and food productivity sectors is significant, and is especially hard on smallholders in pastoral communities whose long-term wealth, livelihood, and food security are tied to just a few animals, and a new vaccine can’t come fast enough for them.
Vaccine development is complex, and researchers need to understand the host immune response, as well as the parasite... and the tick, and how vaccines work in the body in order to even sketch out an approach that might work. Then, their ideas need to be tested for effectiveness and safety before animals can be vaccinated. The ECF team is focused on understanding the best way to deliver the vaccine to the body, and how the body’s immune system responds to the parasite. The hope is that these two elements can synergize for an effective preventative ECF treatment. A group of experts met in April 2012 to identify how to address ECF vaccine development. The meeting led to the establishment of a research consortium comprised of scientists from the Centre for Tick and Tick Borne Diseases (CTTBD), Malawi, ILRI, the Roslin Institute University of Edinburgh, The Institute for Tropical Medicine, Antwerp and USDA-ARS (Animal Disease Research Unit) with national partners representing the key global ECF research leaders and GALVmed as a key public-private-partner.
This consortium mapped out a plan to study T-lymphocytes (part of the immune response) that kill infected cells and that help the body ‘remember’ how to kill them should the infection return. Adjuvants are substances added to vaccines to enhance the body’s protection from vaccination, and vectors are one way to deliver vaccines to the body. The team is working with APHIS and partners in the UK to study novel adjuvants and vectors for an ECF vaccine. African scientists were trained in high-throughput protein purification as part of the capacity building benefits of international collaborations. ECF problems in Africa and the research team’s noble efforts to solve it have not gone unnoticed. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited the group to submit a concept note for possible funding of their research. If accepted, the team could be awarded about $11 million dollars over a 4-year period.