Winner of the 2021 Letten Prize

Meta Roestenberg hails from Netherland and is affiliated with the Leiden University Medical Center where she is the clinical head of the Controlled Human Infection Center. Professor Roestenberg has dedicated her life to harness and deploy her scientific and professional expertise to serve the poorest and the underprivileged people of the world. She works across several disciplines including malaria, schistosomiasis, neglected tropical diseases, vaccines, and controlled human infections. She has interned in Philippines, India, and Namibia, experiences from which has served as a deep source motivation for her work. Through her outstanding scholarly activities and as a practicing medical doctor and scientist, she has published important articles in various international respected journals such as the PLoS Pathogen, Science Translational Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, Nature Medicine, and Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Her engagement and outreach extend way beyond her excellent academic achievements in the area of health. She works closely together with vaccine researchers in Uganda, Zambia, India, and Burkina Faso, which allows bi-directional transfer of knowledge and exchange of staff. She is a member of the WHO Malaria Vaccines Advisory Committee and the working group on development of WHO guidance on Human Challenge Studies among others. Her efforts will continue to have a great impact on solution of poverty-related infectious diseases in countries where the clinical need is highest. She further aims to train a new generation of (female) scientists and physicians in order to extend the benefits of science to a global health.

In Professor Roestenberg’s research proposal, she seeks to establish cost-effective vaccination programs in prevention of neglected infectious diseases by engaging competent Ph.D. students and encouraging the research associated with vaccine development. Through a complex proof of concept study testing existing vaccines’ applicability as vaccine adjuvants, she aims to record the entire process alongside interviews with ethicists and regulators and use this as a means of capacity building and sharing of knowledge. She will explore unchartered territories in malaria vaccine development whilst at the same time developing open access interactive education, which facilitates technology transfer urgently needed to ensure that the next generation Sub-Saharan scientists are able to drive malaria vaccine research programs. The committee views the project as well aligned with the Letten vision, and it is promising with a high impact outcome potential, especially for the developing countries.

In summary, Professor Roestenberg’s achievements and vision meet the criteria listed in the call for the Letten Prize. She has contributed significantly to the research on the infectious diseases prevalent in countries with low resources. Furthermore, she has pioneered the efforts to establish an effective network with researchers in such regions, to solve the poverty-related infectious diseases. Her work has had – and will continue to have – a positive impact worldwide. Simultaneously, her career serves as a sterling example of research that combines scientific excellence and rigor with true social engagement. Professor Roestenberg is a worthy winner of the Letten Prize 2021.

VIDEO: Watch Meta Roestenberg react to the news that she is the winner of the Letten Prize 2021

Get to know Meta Roestenberg

Dr Meta Roestenberg never set out to be a physician. She was good at science, and so felt that medicine might be the best way to use her talents. But while undergoing her medical training and later working in the Phillipines, India and Namibia, and seeing the devastation caused by infectious and tropical diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis and hookworm, she became determined to apply her talents to help tackle these global scourages.

Video: Intervew with Meta Roestenberg hosted by The World Federation of Science Journalists

She decided that going into medical research, while more removed from the patients suffering those diseases, could be more impactful if she was able to advance scientific progress.

Roestenberg undertook a PhD on malaria vaccines at Radboud University Nijmegen, and since then has dedicated her career to finding a way to prevent malaria: a parasitic disease that affects more than 200 million people each year around the world, and kills hundreds of thousands – many of them children. The disease is caused by two types of the parasite Plasmodium, and are transmitted to humans through the saliva of the female Anopheles mosquito.

Now Clinical Head of the Controlled Human Infection Center at the Leiden University Medical Center, Roestenberg is working on a vaccine approach that could be applied not only to malaria but other parasitic diseases.

The challenge with developing a vaccine for malaria is two-fold. Firstly, the disease is most prevalent and devastating in poorer parts of the world, which means there isn’t the same level of investment into malaria research as there might be in a disease that affects wealthier nations.

The second challenge is a biological one. Parasites are highly evolved to live on their host without provoking an immune response that might eliminate them. “They’ve completely adapted to the human immune system, and may have ways to actually manipulate the immune system so that it doesn’t respond very vigorously,” Roestenberg says. There are currently no effective vaccines against any parasitic disease.

For a malaria vaccine to work, it has to overcome this manipulation and boost the human host’s immune response enough to be able to eliminate the parasite whenever it encounters it. “Can we design something that activates the immune system enough so that it gets trained to be more aggressive towards malaria parasites rather than tolerant?,” she says.

The answer could lie in two existing vaccines: the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine against the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, and the yellow fever vaccine against another mosquito-borne illness caused by a virus. Both these vaccines are known to strongly activate the immune system both at the site of injection and throughout the body.

Roestenberg and colleagues want to see if they can make use of the immune-stimulating effects of these vaccines to increase the immunological response against the malaria parasite.

With the support of the Letten Prize, Roestenberg is planning a rigorous clinical trial in which healthy volunteers will be given a dose of a malaria vaccine candidate – which consists of malaria parasites that have been genetically modified so they cannot cause disease – at the same time as being given a dose of the tuberculosis and yellow fever vaccines.

The volunteers will then be exposed to malaria infection under carefully controlled conditions to see if the combination of vaccines is able to prevent infection.

Roestenberg is a leading expert on these types of trials, which have become vital in the scientific quest for new vaccines and treatments for disease, and volunteers are given the best medical treatments in the event that they do become infected.

She hopes that if the trial is successful, it opens the door to a new method of vaccine development. “What we’re hoping to do is create a blueprint,” she says, although the aim of the research is not to create the malaria vaccine itself. “We’ll learn so much that hopefully that will tell us what kind of ingredients need to go into the vaccine.”

She is also planning to document the process of conducting the trial on film, so it can be used as a resource by research teams elsewhere in the world, especially scientists in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia, where malaria causes much suffering. The film will include interviews with scientists, ethicists and regulators to cover all dimensions of conducting a trial like this.

While the Letten Prize honours her personal contribution to the research, Roestenberg pays tribute to the team of young researchers who work alongside her. “I’m extremely proud of the young people who will actually do the work that I’ve proposed,” she says. “This kind of research suffers from so much neglect, and we really strive to move science forward for these populations that are really not seen by the world.”

VIDEO: What will Meta do with the Prize Money?
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