Researchers using common cold virus to help develop new meningitis vaccine
Pioneering researchers are hoping that developing a new meningitis vaccine by inserting part of the bacterium inside a harmless version of the cold virus, could be key to providing effective protection against the devastating condition. The project is being funded by children’s charity Action Medical Research.
Infection by the meningococcus B (MenB) bacterium is a leading cause of meningitis and septicaemia in the UK. Both illnesses can strike seemingly at random 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.2,3 Sadly around 5% of those who become ill will die, more than three quarters of whom are under five years old.1 Survivors can be left with permanent disabilities - some become deaf or blind, for example, or develop learning disabilities, and some have fingers, toes or even whole limbs amputated.
Antibiotic treatment can save lives. However, some children are so poorly by the time they reach hospital that antibiotic treatment comes too late. Vaccination is therefore considered the best way to tackle the problem. Vaccines against other bugs that cause meningitis and septicaemia are available in the UK but no vaccine has yet been approved to protect children from MenB.
Now, researchers based at the University of Oxford are developing a new vaccine against MenB, which they hope will protect children, thanks to a grant of £148,052 from children’s charity Action Medical Research.
Lead researcher, Professor Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: “Vaccines normally contain fragments of the bug that causes a particular disease, or bugs that have been killed or weakened in some way. They work by stimulating a child’s immune system to recognise and attack the bug if it ever invades the body.”
“We hope the new vaccine will give broad-ranging protection against the many, subtly different types of MenB bacteria. Evidence suggests that using the cold virus might stimulate a rapid, large and long-lasting immunity to MenB infection,” he added.
The researchers are investigating how well the novel vaccine works in a laboratory model. They are also investigating the possibility of using it in conjunction with other vaccines against MenB that they are studying in other projects. Mixing the most promising vaccine candidates together, in a single formulation, might be a good way to boost their overall potency, for example.
Dr Caroline Johnston, Research Evaluation Manager at Action Medical Research, said: “An effective vaccine could save many children’s lives and stop countless others from developing serious, lifelong disabilities, such as blindness, deafness and loss of limbs. Preventing disabilities could spare children from suffering and bring large cost savings – to the children, their families and society as a whole.”
The researchers believe their new vaccine could benefit children in the UK and worldwide. They expect it to be highly affordable, making it suitable for widespread use. If their laboratory work is successful, they plan to set up clinical trials of the vaccine as soon as possible.
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Case study: Cieran’s story
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 our short film about Cieran’s story at: www.action.org.uk/take60
NOTES TO EDITORS:
Professor Pollard is available for interview at the University of Oxford between 2.30-5pm on Tuesday 3 July 2012. Sue Waring, mother of Cieran who contracted MenB, is also available for interview this week (2-6 July). Contact Toni Slater in the first instance (see below).
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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.
1. 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.
2. Guidance for public health management of meningococcal disease in the UK. Health Protection Agency Meningococcus and Haemophilus Forum. February 2011, updated March 2012. http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1194947389261 (accessed 14.6.12)
3. Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - Mid 2010. Office for National Statistics. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/taxonomy/index.html?nscl=Population (accessed 14.6.12)