The article is published on Nature News: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-03928-0
Credit: Kilayé Bationo for Nature
Malaria fighter: this researcher paved the way for a game-changing vaccine
Halidou Tinto runs a clinic in rural Burkina Faso that has been instrumental to the approval of the world’s first malaria vaccines.
By Brendan Maher
This story is part of Nature’s 10, an annual list compiled by Nature’s editors exploring key developments in science and the individuals who contributed to them.
In October, work and life collided for Halidou Tinto when his six-year-old daughter caught malaria. A director of clinical trials for malaria drugs and vaccines for more than a decade, Tinto knew how severe the disease could be. His daughter was hospitalized for four days with a fever, headaches and vomiting. She recovered, but “it was really serious”, he says.
That same month, a vaccine called R21 that he had been testing was recommended for use by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is only the second malaria vaccine to be approved and many think it could prevent millions of deaths in Africa, where the vast majority of malaria infections occur. Every year there are more than 200 million cases and 500,000 deaths on the continent, predominantly in children younger than 5 years old.
The institute that Tinto directs, the Clinical Research Unit of Nanoro (CRUN) in Burkina Faso, is a key test site for R21, its predecessor RTS,S and several other drugs. Many scientists credit Tinto’s diligence for the institute’s success.
Tinto earned a PhD at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, studying how malaria becomes resistant to various drugs. His adviser at the time, Umberto D’Alessandro, a clinical epidemiologist now at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and based in Fajara, the Gambia, says that he has always been struck by both Tinto’s rigour as a scientist and his dedication. “He truly wants to advance science and research in Africa,” says D’Alessandro.
Tinto had an opportunity to do a postdoc at a US university, but turned it down to return to Burkina Faso in 2006. There, he helped to establish the CRUN with local scientists and clinicians.
In 2007, pharmaceutical company GSK and its partners were gearing up to do late-stage clinical trials of RTS,S — a vaccine that had been in development for years. For Tinto’s new clinic, with just ten employees, becoming part of the trial seemed like a long shot. “They were surprised that we applied,” he says, “because there was no electricity, no cars, nothing.” Nevertheless, Tinto convinced the coordinators that he could make it work.
He met with the king of the village, and together they persuaded the Burkina Faso government to connect Nanoro to the national grid. The CRUN produced data that helped to get RTS,S approved in Africa.
That vaccine has been associated with a significant reduction in child mortality. But GSK can produce only a few million doses a year. Even if Burkina Faso got one million of those, Tinto says, that would vaccinate only 250,000 children a year. “We still have millions of children lagging behind,” he says. That’s why people are excited about R21: the Serum Institute of India in Pune can currently produce 100 million doses a year. R21 should also be more affordable than RTS,S, and some researchers expect it to be more effective.
Tinto ran an influential early study of the vaccine, starting in 2019 (M. S. Datoo et al. Lancet 397, 1809–1818; 2021). “He led the trial that really, to people in the field, showed that this vaccine was going to be different,” says Adrian Hill, a vaccinologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who oversaw the development of R21.
The WHO has said that R21 will be available across Africa as early as mid-2024. Meanwhile, Tinto is working on more than 30 clinical trials, including two further malaria vaccines and more studies on R21.
CRUN has expanded beyond Nanoro, and now has more than 400 staff members and associates, including dozens of graduate students from all over Africa. D’Alessandro, with whom Tinto still collaborates, says that it is a good example of how research can stimulate development in Africa. But what inspires Tinto the most is the opportunity to save lives. “You cannot have really any other satisfaction beyond that; because life, for me, is the most important thing.”
Congratulations to Professor Halidou Tinto for this remarkable recognition.