Cervical cancer prevention, malaria vaccines receive funding of $2.5 million

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington research projects aimed at improving rural access to cervical cancer screening services and developing a vaccine for malaria have received nearly $2.5 million in funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

A research team led by Professor Bev Lawton (Ngāti Porou) from the Wellington Faculty of Health, partnering with iwi Ngāti Pāhauwera, has received nearly $1.3 million in funding to explore how empowering rural communities to screen and provide on-site, rapid test results  could reduce barriers to screening and treatment for Māori in rural communities.

Cervical cancer disproportionately affects Māori women and delays and disparities occur at all stages of the clinical pathway, from screening to diagnosis and treatment, Professor Lawton says.

The research project within the faculty’s Centre for Women’s Health Research Te Tātai Hauora o Hine will use a new technology that can provide on-site test results from swabs within one hour and will combine this with self-testing for HPV rather than a traditional cervical smear. This will allow rural health services to provide immediate diagnosis, support, information and follow up when needed.

“Testing for HPV, the causative agent of cervical cancer, is much more effective at detecting pre-cancer and preventing cervical cancer than cervical smears, and research has shown that the less invasive option of self-testing is more acceptable for Māori women,” Professor Lawton says.

“With this pathway, women can do their own HPV self-test, have a cuppa, be given their result and organise any required treatment within one appointment. Our research will determine whether this improves the timeliness and acceptability of cervical screening and treatment for these women.”

Toro Waaka, Chairperson of the Ngāti Pāhauwera Development Trust, says the relationship between the iwi and the Centre demonstrates a model that provides realistic and innovative solutions focused on what whānau see as their needs.

“We have confidence in the specialist core competencies of the team to bridge sensitive cultural and gender issues. This has the potential to inform policy, broaden service delivery, reduce disease and burden and save lives from cervical cancer,” he says.

Professor Gavin Painter from the University’s Ferrier Research Institute has received nearly $1.2 million in funding for development of a malaria vaccine.

Malaria kills around half a million people a year and disproportionately affects children in developing countries. The currently available vaccine only offers long-term protection against infection for up to 30 percent of those immunised, and a huge unmet need remains, Professor Painter says.

The Ferrier Research Institute has been working with the Malaghan Institute for Medical Research, the University of Melbourne, and Avalia Immunotherapies over the past three years to develop a simple vaccine design that could be manufactured efficiently and administered easily in at-risk countries.

“Traditional vaccines typically work by looking for foreign bodies or antigens present on the surface of the pathogen,” Professor Painter says. “These ‘antibody-producing’ vaccines can be incredibly potent and offer long-term immunity, however in the case of malaria they don’t work very well because the parasite resides inside cells that antibodies can’t reach.”

Malaria enters the body when a human is bitten by a mosquito and then travels to the liver, where it replicates over a week before re-entering the bloodstream, where the disease takes hold.

“Research from Professor William Heath at the University of Melbourne showed that immunity and protection against malaria comes from memory T cells in the liver,” Professor Painter explains.

Professor Painter’s team developed an initial vaccine that produces these cells in high numbers and thus provides protection against malaria. The research programme was initiated by Avalia Immunotherapies and is now an ongoing collaboration with Professor Painter, Professor Heath, and Professor Hermans from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. The team’s work towards designing a simpler, more efficient malaria vaccine was recently published in Science Immunology.

“The ability to target specific tissues like the liver really sets this vaccine apart from other vaccines,” Professor Painter says. “This represents a fundamentally new way to think about how to design vaccines.”

"The advantage of synthetic vaccines is that they are better suited to scale up and distribution. The ultimate goal of this research is that we’re able to work with Avalia to commercialise this technology and have it out in the world-saving lives.”

Professor Painter says the HRC funding will allow the research team to take the vaccine to the next level and prepare it for eventual use in humans.