Helping children affected by disability and infections

Meningitis, septicaemia and pneumonia: developing a new vaccine

First published on 15 June 2010

Updated on 1 May 2014

What did the project achieve?

“We are developing a new vaccine to protect children from serious diseases caused by a bacterium called the pneumococcus,” says Dr Qibo Zhang of the University of Liverpool.

This bacterium causes serious diseases such as meningitis, septicaemia (a form of blood poisoning) and pneumonia, as well as milder but more common illnesses such as middle ear infections and sinusitis.

Diseases caused by this bacterium are a major public health problem worldwide.1 The most recent estimate from the World Health Organization suggests that nearly half a million children under five lose their lives to this bacterium each year.2 Children who survive can be left with lifelong disabilities.

“In this laboratory work, we found that a small protein from the pneumococcus stimulates children’s immune cells in a way that might protect children from diseases like meningitis,” says Dr Zhang. “We are now in the process of developing a vaccine, based on this protein, which would be given to children as a simple-to-use nasal spray.”

Existing vaccines have already proved life-saving, but they don’t protect against all of the 90 or so different types of pneumococcus. Dr Zhang hopes his new vaccine will broaden protection, so sparing more children from the death and disability that this dangerous bacterium can cause.

This research was completed on 14 November 2012

Each year worldwide, up to one million children under five lose their lives to diseases caused by a bacterium called the pneumococcus.1 This bacterium can cause serious illnesses such as pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). Vaccines are available, but they don’t always work in very young children and they do not give protection against all of the 90 or so different types of the pneumococcus.1 Researchers are developing a new vaccine in the hope of protecting more children.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Deadly infections

Diseases caused by pneumococcal bacteria are a major public health problem worldwide.1 The World Health Organization estimates that over one and a half million people die each year from serious infections like pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis caused by these bacteria.1 Up to one million of those who lose their lives are children less than five years old.1

Antibiotics can kill the pneumococcus, but the bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to commonly used drugs. Tragically, many children die even if they are treated and those who survive can be left with lifelong disabilities. Children who battle through meningitis, for example, can go on to develop learning disabilities, vision or hearing loss, seizures and behavioural problems.

As well as causing severe illnesses like meningitis, pneumococcal infections can also lead to more common but less serious problems, such as middle ear infections, sinusitis and bronchitis.

Vaccines can protect children from diseases caused by the pneumococcus. However, current vaccines are complex and expensive to produce, they do not protect against all of the 90 or so different types of this bacterium and they are not all effective in very young children. Better vaccines are urgently needed.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Developing a new vaccine

The researchers are in the laboratory stages of developing a possible new vaccine against the pneumococcus. The vaccine contains a substance called D4Ply, a fragment of a protein that is produced by nearly all of the 90 or so different types of pneumococcus. Basing the vaccine on this substance could therefore mean it gives protection against nearly all pneumococcal bacteria.

Existing vaccines, in contrast, do not give such broad protection. They contain fragments of certain sugars that are present in the coats of some, but not all, types of pneumococcus. Existing vaccines do not, therefore, work against all types of pneumococcus.

The researchers envisage incorporating the new vaccine into a nasal spray. They believe this would stimulate an immune response by the adenoids, which are immune tissues in the upper airways – the area of the body that pneumococcal bacteria normally invade first. (Existing vaccines are given via intramuscular injections, normally in the arm.)

The researchers are assessing whether the new vaccine induces an immune response in cells taken from the adenoids of around 30 children, aged 2-5 years. The children are having their adenoids removed because they have become enlarged, causing an obstruction in the upper airways.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr Q Zhang MD PhD
Project team
  • Dr Paul McNamara MBBS MRCPCH PhD
  • Professor Timothy Mitchell PhD FRCPath
LocationDivision of Immunology, School of Infection and Host Defence, University of Liverpool and the Institute of Child Health, Alder Hey Hospitals, Liverpool in conjunction with the Division of Infection and Immunity, Glasgow Biomedical Research Centre, University of Glasgow
Other locations
  • Institute of Child Health, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool
  • Division of Infection and Immunity, Glasgow Biomedical Research Centre, University of Glasgow
Duration2 years
Grant awarded15 March 2010
Start date15 November 2010
End date14 November 2012
Grant amount£102,037.00
Grant codeSP4518, GN1769

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This project brings together three leading researchers with complementary expertise. The project leader, Dr Qibo Zhang, has a successful track record in researching how the immune system responds to pneumococcal infections and possible protein vaccines. Dr Zhang is based at the School of Infection and Host Defence, at the University of Liverpool, which has excellent facilities for this research.

Professor Timothy Mitchell is a world-leading expert in the pneumococcus. He has studied how infection leads to disease and focused in particular on assessing which bacterial proteins show most promise for use in possible new vaccines. Professor Mitchell is based in the Glasgow Biomedical Research Centre, where the protein fragment that is being investigated in this research is being produced.

Dr McNamara is based in the Institute of Child Health at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, one of the biggest and busiest children’s hospitals in Europe. Alder Hey has a world-class reputation for treating and saving the lives of sick children and a track record of pioneering research. Dr McNamara has a major research interest in childhood respiratory disease.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Young children could benefit most

The researchers are hoping to develop a new vaccine that can protect children from serious pneumococcal infections such as meningitis, septicaemia and pneumonia. The vaccine may also give protection against more common but less serious problems such as middle ear infections, sinusitis and bronchitis.

If the vaccine shows promise in the laboratory, the researchers hope to move towards clinical trials as quickly as possible.

The researchers believe their potential new vaccine could be much cheaper to produce than those that are currently available, meaning it could bring considerable savings in public healthcare costs in the UK. Lower costs could also mean the vaccine is affordable in developing countries.

Pnemococcal infections represent a major public health problem worldwide. They kill an estimated 1.6 million people each year – with many being children less than five years old.1 Those who survive their infection can be left with lifelong disabilities. Large numbers of people around the world – mostly very young children – could therefore benefit greatly from any successful new vaccine.

References

  1. World Health Organization (WHO). Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for childhood immunization – WHO position paper. Weekly epidemiological record 23 March 2007, 82 (10):93-104. http://www.who.int/wer/2007/wer8212.pdf