Volume 100, Issue 6
  • ISSN: 0002-9637
  • E-ISSN: 1476-1645



18S rRNA is a biomarker that provides an alternative to thick blood smears in controlled human malaria infection (CHMI) trials. We reviewed data from CHMI trials at non-endemic sites that used blood smears and 18S rRNA/rDNA biomarker nucleic acid tests (NATs) for time to positivity. We validated a multiplex quantitative reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) for 18S rRNA, prospectively compared blood smears and qRT-PCR for three trials, and modeled treatment effects at different biomarker-defined parasite densities to assess the impact on infection detection, symptom reduction, and measured intervention efficacy. Literature review demonstrated accelerated NAT-based infection detection compared with blood smears (mean acceleration: 3.2–3.6 days). For prospectively tested trials, the validated 18S rRNA qRT-PCR positivity was earlier (7.6 days; 95% CI: 7.1–8.1 days) than blood smears (11.0 days; 95% CI: 10.3–11.8 days) and significantly preceded the onset of grade 2 malaria-related symptoms (12.2 days; 95% CI: 10.6–13.3 days). Discrepant analysis showed that the risk of a blood smear–positive, biomarker-negative result was negligible. Data modeling predicted that treatment triggered by specific biomarker-defined thresholds can differentiate complete, partial, and non-protective outcomes and eliminate many grade 2 and most grade 3 malaria-related symptoms post-CHMI. 18S rRNA is a sensitive and specific biomarker that can justifiably replace blood smears for infection detection in CHMI trials in non-endemic settings. This study led to biomarker qualification through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in CHMI studies at non-endemic sites, which will facilitate biomarker use for the qualified context of use in drug and vaccine trials.

[open-access] This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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  • Received : 30 Jan 2019
  • Accepted : 21 Mar 2019
  • Published online : 22 Apr 2019

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