Researchers have announced the most promising experimental vaccine to date to protect infants and young children against malaria.  Investigators said the candidate vaccine will begin its final regulatory hurdle next year.  

In two studies published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers reported the results of two clinical trials in Kenya and Tanzania of the experimental malaria vaccine, RTS, S/AS.  

Investigators found the vaccine, which is the most clinically advanced to date, prevented the disease in more than half of babies and young children in the studies.  Malaria kills some one million people each year, most of them in children.

Christian Loucq is Director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, a non-profit research funding organization.  Loucq said that while the candidate vaccine is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction.

"The research results reported today show that we are one important step closer to the day when malaria will join diseases like smallpox and polio that have been either eradicated or controlled by vaccine," he said.

In the study in Tanzania, researchers gave the vaccine to 340 infants.  They say that 65 percent of them were protected against malaria during the six month clinical trial.

In Kenya, which enrolled almost 900 children between five and 17 months old, RTS, S/AS  protected 53 percent of them over an eight month period.

Ripley Ballou is with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which promotes global health, development and education.

"The foundation is very excited about this project because it's about saving lives.  And we should recognize that it's infants and young children who are at the most risk of dying from malaria.  And it's exactly those populations that the vaccine is targeting.  And it's in those populations and over the time frame those children are at their most risk of dying of malaria that the vaccine is most effective," said Ballou.

Researchers are now recruiting 16,000 infants and young children to begin final phase clinical trials next year.  It all goes well, they are expected to seek regulatory approval in 2011.