US-based Malaysian scientist makes major breakthrough

(The Malay Mail) – Most malaria scientists thought it would be impossible to manufacture a sporozoite vaccine that would meet regulatory agency standards.

As news of a scientific breakthrough by US researchers make headlines, Malaysians should be proud to know that a fellow countryman was involved in the production of the first experimental vaccine with a 100 per cent success rate in protecting subjects from malaria.

Sanaria Inc vice-president of process development and manufacturing Dr Betty Sim Kim Lee (picture) dedicated her life to the field of scientific research.

“I have worked on filariasis (the disease that causes elephantiasis) and malaria since my university days. I have also worked on other infectious diseases like dengue fever, SARS, anthrax and plague,” she said.

Sim, who grew up in Kota Baru, received her early education at SK Zainab and Sultan Ismail College.

“When I was in high school, I participated in science fairs. I even travelled from Kota Baru to Kuala Lumpur to participate in a national science fair when I was in Form 6,” she said.

She pursued her undergraduate and graduate studies at University Malaya.

“After receiving my PhD, I moved to the US to do a post-doctoral fellowship in molecular biology at Harvard University in 1984,” said Sim, who currently resides in Maryland.

Before the inception of Sanaria Inc, Sim founded a biotech company in 2003 called Protein Potential LLC, which develops vaccines for infectious diseases.

“Sanaria was started 10 years ago in my house by my husband Dr Stephen Hoffman. I was supportive towards his cause,” she shared.

Hoffman is a tropical infectious diseases specialist and Sanaria chief executive and scientific officer.

“I also oversaw the process of thawing the vaccine and formulating it in syringes during the trial.”

The vaccine is called PfSPZ because it is made from sporozoites (SPZ), a stage in the life cycle of the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum (Pf).

According to Sim, all previous attempts to develop a malaria vaccine used just a handful of parasite proteins.

“The parasite has more than 5,000 proteins and we did not think that using one or two proteins would be adequate. We used the entire parasite as the vaccine,” she said.

Despite the vaccine being hailed as a “pivotal success”, critics were aplenty during the earlier stages of its development.

Most malaria scientists thought it would be impossible to manufacture a sporozoite vaccine that would meet regulatory agency standards.

“Our PfSPZ vaccine is based on strong scientific evidence so I was certain we could overcome the challenges. It feels good to know we were right!”

“Before it can be licensed, there will be multiple trials in Africa, the US, Europe and, hopefully, Asia, to further establish the safety, tolerance level and protective efficacy of the vaccine,” she added.

The team at Sanaria hopes to have the vaccine licensed within three to five years.

On her plans for the immediate future, the mother of three boys said: “I will also be travelling to our clinical sites to oversee the thawing and filling of the vaccine in preparation for administration by the clinical teams at each site.

“I am humbled at the responsibility of taking this over the finish line.”