Friday, July 03, 2009

Malaria vaccine researcher wins Kiwanis World Service Medal

Virginia native Col. Donald "Gray" Heppner Jr. has won the Kiwanis 2009 World Service Award. Heppner won the award for his work developing a malaria fighting vaccine.

From the Richmond Times Dispatch, writer Christa Desrets gives us more background on Heppner's work.

After studying infectious diseases at the University of Virginia and completing internal training at the University of Minnesota, he began working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

"It was really a dynamic and inspiring place," he said, where he and about 2,000 employees are connected to the tropical world through overseas laboratories, field sites and more than 40 years of work. They also work with GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceuticals and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation "right in the heart of where tropical diseases afflict people most."

In the early 1990s, Heppner volunteered to be a test subject for a malaria vaccine. He said the process involved holding his arm to a cardboard cup that contained five mosquitoes carrying malaria -- he related it to receiving a week's worth of exposure to the disease in five minutes.

"The worst part," he said, "was actually realizing the vaccine wasn't effective."

The next-worst part was living through the flulike symptoms and the side effects of treatment, he said. "Both of those experiences convinced me of the need for a malaria vaccine," he said.

That's where the vaccine (known as RTS,S) comes in, Heppner said.

"We've worked for more than 20 years on this promising RTS,S vaccine," he said. "We've tested it here, we've tested it in England, in Asia and in Africa. . . . It looks like it would reduce severe malaria by 50 percent, and that's huge."

No comments: