rofessor Samuel J. McConkey, Head of
Department, International Health and Tropical
Medicine at RCSI, leads a team that is carrying
out a range of research work with significant
potential for improving human health, including
clinical trials to develop a new vaccine for malaria.
In Ireland, approximately 100 cases of malaria occur each
year, many of which are treated successfully by Professor
Sam McConkey, RCSI Department of International Health
and Tropical Medicine. Internationally, however, the
challenges presented by malaria are on a vast scale with the
disease estimated to kill 600,000 people each year.
On that basis, Ireland might seem an unlikely location for
studies in malaria, but Professor McConkey says this work
is a continuation of Ireland's historic work in international
healthcare and education. "Ireland perhaps is quite unique
among other developed countries as it has developed strong
non-colonial links to developing nations, particularly in
Africa, South America and Asia." Having worked in a number
of African countries himself, Professor McConkey has first-
hand knowledge of the impact vaccine research can have.
Recently Professor McConkey was involved in a phase one
study of two new vaccines. Conducted in Ireland, this was
the first human trial of the vaccines. "We did the first vaccine
trial at this critical stage to bring it from animal research and
test tubes. There are two primary questions at this point: is
it safe and does it bring the immune response that might
prevent malaria? Thankfully ours was very safe, did produce
a positive immune response and has gone into the next
stage of trials."
Professor McConkey says vaccine research has been
transformative in healthcare. "Relatively cheaply and for an
entire population, vaccines, can reduce the incidence of a
disease, by up to 99 per cent, relatively quickly. They are a
technology that have had, in multiple instances, a dramatic
effect. A vaccine for malaria would be a huge step forward."
Along with malaria, Professor McConkey says HIV is another
virus that has come to dominate tropical medicine research.
"HIV has become evident across all fields of medicine,
whether you are a cardiac surgeon, a public health doctor or
a psychiatrist. HIV is very much everywhere in the world."
He adds that HIV research and clinical care have, over the
past 20 years, been very generously funded and have seen
significant successes. "The quality of HIV treatments is
exemplary and our understanding of HIV is probably better
than of any other viral illness in the world. The reason it
is not on the media's front page any more is because the
treatments have been so successful and people are not
dying in the streets with it like they are with Ebola.
"Even in Africa, where I was involved in setting up the
treatment programme in Gambia, people are now living 20-
30 years, post-contraction of the disease. They are taking
medication every day, but thankfully they have far fewer
side-effects than they used to and it is now often just one
pill a day." He continues: "The quality of care for people
with HIV is really wonderful and the life-expectancy of
somebody with HIV treatment is now just three or four years
shorter than the life expectancy of HIV-unaffected people.
In Beaumont, an RCSI teaching hospital, we have audited
our results and 93 per cent of the people there who are on
treatment have an undetected viral load and that correlates
with long-term success and decades of healthy life."
Professor McConkey has years of experience working in
Africa. He has been frequently asked to provide expert
comment across a range of national media on the subject
of Ebola in recent months. "The Ebola outbreak that is
happening in West Africa is an issue of unimaginable
significance to the countries there. I believe that there
is real need for help and people are really crying out for
technology, money, personnel and equipment. And it
is in the long-term interest of people all over the world
to provide that help, otherwise this will rumble on and
gradually spread more widely around the world."
research team aims
to beat malaria
Professor Sam McConkey (centre) with members of the malaria
vaccine clinical trial research team: Dr Eoghan de Barra, Ann Collins
and Kerrie Hennigan.