Helping develop key vaccines: protecting the adults of the future | Action Medical Research

Helping develop key vaccines: protecting the adults of the future

17 October 2012

Action Medical Research, the UK children’s charity, celebrated its anniversary in 2012 by marking 60 years of funding which has led to some key scientific breakthroughs to help reduce the suffering of sick babies and children.

Thanks to its supporters the charity has been able to fund research that, amongst other areas, has helped develop key vaccines to protect babies and children against diseases like polio and meningitis.

Mark Gardiner, Professor of Paediatrics at University College London, is a member of the Action Medical Research Council of Trustees. He says: “The health of infants and children today is unimaginably better than 60 years ago. Increased knowledge based on research has been a major factor in this improvement.”

Action Medical Research has supported many vaccine-related research projects and invested millions of pounds over their proud 60 year history, just some of which are detailed below.

Pioneering work: protecting children from polio

The charity was originally founded in 1952 by Duncan Guthrie, in his quest to find a cure for polio after his daughter Janet was diagnosed with the disease. At that time polio killed hundreds of children in the UK each year and disabled over 30,000 people in Britain between 1947 and 1958.

Frustrated by the lack of research and treatment centres in the UK, Guthrie set up the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research. Within ten years, the UK polio vaccine was introduced and has kept millions of children safe from the deadly virus.

Early charity funding went to Professor George Dick and his team at Queen’s University in Belfast, to test and develop two polio vaccines for use in the UK: the injectable Salk vaccine, introduced in 1955, and the oral sugar cube Sabin vaccine, introduced in 1962.

Testing the early rubella vaccine

Rubella (also known as German measles) is a viral infection which, if contracted by the mother in the early stages of pregnancy, can cause severe abnormalities in an unborn baby. It can result in learning disabilities, deafness and heart problems: symptoms of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Before immunisation was introduced, there were regular epidemics with at least 70 children born with CRS each year.1 Today, it is very rare. 

During the 1960s and 1970s the charity supported Dr Kevin McCarthy. He and Dr Alistair Dudgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London showed that their vaccine, containing a live rubella virus, wasn’t contagious, gave long-lasting protection and was safe. It was offered to girls from the 1970s and in 1988 the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was launched. Today in the UK, there are less than 20 cases of rubella a year.1

Meningitis Children and babies are at particular risk of meningitis, a serious and sometimes fatal infection caused by viruses or bacteria and there are various different types.

The charity funded the Professor Richard Moxon at the University of Oxford. His team helped establish the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine to prevent meningitis caused by the bacterium. In England and Wales, Hib infection previously resulted in around 800 cases in young children each year, 30 of whom sadly died. Thanks to the introduction of the Hib vaccine in 1992 incidence in children under five fell by 98 per cent.2,3

Pioneering research elsewhere, funded by Action Medical Research, is developing a vaccine against meningococcus B (MenB) – a leading cause of meningitis and septicaemia in the UK. Both illnesses can strike with alarming speed and healthy children can become seriously ill within just a few hours. Many victims are babies or very young children, or teenagers between 15 and 19. There are more than 1300 reported cases of MenB disease each year in the UK and Ireland.4,5 Sadly around five per cent of those who become ill will die, more than three quarters of whom are under five years old.6 [Editors: see case study below]

Ongoing funding is also being given to research that aims to develop a new vaccine to protect more children against the pneumococcus bacterium. Worldwide, diseases caused by the bacterium kill up to one million children under five.7 Pneumococcus can causes serious illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). The vaccines that are available don’t always work in very young children and do not give protection to all the 90 or so different types of the bacterium.1

Diabetes vaccine: skin cream to improve effectiveness A further recent project funded by the charity has resulted in the discovery that a steroid skin cream could make a type 1 diabetes vaccine more effective.

The number of children with type 1 diabetes has increased worryingly over the last 50 years and a vaccine is now in clinical trials. The researchers in Cardiff have devised a way to make that vaccine more effective. Tests using a steroid cream to treat the skin at the site of injection to reduce inflammation, and so improve the vaccine’s results in protecting the pancreas, were a success. It is hoped this will lead to the development of treatments to improve insulin production and blood sugar levels.

Still more to do
Although the charity has helped save and change so many children’s lives, there is still much more to learn about what triggers diseases, how to prevent them and how to develop effective new treatments and find the best ways to care for sick babies and children.

“Much remains to be done. Research in paediatrics and child health remains a vital and essential force for good in helping to improve the lives of children in this country and throughout the world, the adults of the future, in the years to come,” Professor Mark Gardiner says.

The charity funds a total of approximately £3 million worth of research grants every year. As well as supporting project grants, awarded in the summer and autumn, the charity also awards Research Training Fellowships annually.

- ENDS -


Pictures can be downloaded from:

Meningitis case study: Cieran (Merseyside)
Cieran was just nine-months-old when he caught meningitis but the scars of his battle with the deadly infection remain today. Lucky to survive, little Cieran had to be resuscitated after he stopped breathing during a prolonged seizure while being treated in hospital.

His mum Sue says: “He came home a 22lb newborn. He lost all his skills and was unable to even hold his own head up anymore or smile on a bean bag.”

Cieran never developed the typical septicaemia rash but was classed as having meningococcal meningitis type B due to the damage caused inside his tiny body. He is now profoundly deaf, with very little speech, and also has epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

Sue adds: “People questioned had he not had his vaccinations as a baby? They seemed unaware that there is more than one type of meningitis and there is still no vaccine to prevent the type that Cieran had.”

Watch a video of Cieran’s story here:

1.Health Protection Agency Website; General information of Rubella [ Topics/ InfectiousDiseases/InfectionsAZ/Rubella/GeneralInformation/rubGeneralInfo/] (accessed July 5th 2011)
2. Rice G. Meningitis (cerebrospinal meningitis). Netdoctor. [] (accessed 2006)
3. National Health Service. Immunisation information [ /Vaccines] (accessed Jan 2010).
4. Guidance for public health management of meningococcal disease in the UK. Health Protection Agency Meningococcus and Haemophilus Forum. February 2011, updated March 2012. [] (accessed 14.6.12)
5. Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - Mid 2010. Office for National Statistics. [] (accessed 14.6.12)
6. Gray SJ et al. Epidemiology of meningococcal disease in England and Wales 1993/94 to 2003/04: contribution and experiences of the Meningococcal Reference Unit. Journal of Medical Microbiology 2006; 55: 887-96.
7. World Health Organization (WHO). Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for childhood immunization – WHO position paper. Weekly epidemiological record 23 March 2007, 82 (10):93-104. []

For further information please contact:

Toni Slater
Interim Communications Manager
T: 01403 327478

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Action Medical Research - the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children - is celebrating 60 years of vital research in 2012. We’ve been funding medical breakthroughs since we began in 1952 and have spent more than £100 million on research that has helped save thousands of children’s lives and changed many more.

Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:

  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.

But there is still so much more to do. Make 2012 a special year and help fund more life-changing research for some of the UK’s sickest babies and children.

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