Why are MRF continuing to fund MenB vaccine research?

“I’ve seen in the news that a MenB vaccine will soon have a licence. If this is the case, why is MRF still funding MenB vaccine research?”

Chair of our Scientific Advisory Panel, Professor Chris Tang, answers:

These are very exciting times in the discovery and development of vaccines to prevent infection with the serogroup B meningococcus (MenB). There has been much progress over the last few years which has led to the trials in adults, children and most recently in infants. Two companies, Novartis and Pfizer (formerly Wyeth), both have promising vaccines and the Novartis vaccine is expected to be licensed soon raising hopes of a vaccine to provide broad-based protection against MenB, which has been a holy grail for many of us. So why does Meningitis Research Foundation continue to devote its efforts to research on this feared pathogen?

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, MenB is a master of disguise, and is able to change its surface structures to avoid our immune system. This means that while many vaccines have been made which can successfully kill one or a few different MenB strains, the challenge is to make a vaccine that is effective against the wide variety of strains that circulate in the community, and which can strike us down at a moment’s notice. To get round this problem, the current vaccines consist of cocktails of MenB proteins, and these have provided encouraging results in adults. However we know from other MenB vaccine trials that the way youngest children (who are at greatest risk from MenB) respond to vaccines is quite different than for older children and adults. It is possible that the vaccines could provide less protection against MenB in these children who are most vulnerable. So finding out more about how infants respond to these new vaccines will be critical to know if they will be successful when given as part of routine childhood immunisations. Therefore it is essential that the search for new vaccines continues unabated, until the value of these experimental candidates is proven. Meningitis Research Foundation remains at the forefront of charities funding the discovery of vaccines against MenB, and is supporting several programmes across Europe and in the USA in the search for new vaccine targets.

Secondly the spread of MenB comes through a spread of droplets and by direct contact from our upper airways. The natural place where the bug lives is in the back of the throat, and the nasal passages. Much of the success of available vaccines is because they are able to block colonisation, which then breaks the chain of person to person transmission. So far we have no idea whether these new vaccines affect carriage of MenB, and this is an area which will need to be supported in future research funding.

Even once the key questions of the vaccines’ effect in the very young and their impact on carriage are addressed and these vaccines are given as part of the routine childhood vaccine schedule, careful surveillance of both cases of MenB and its carriage are needed to see if the bug evolves to avoid our immune responses. This would be in much the same way that some pathogens have become highly resistant to evade killing by available antibiotics. This poses a significant threat to the long term success of any vaccination programme but even more of a potential problem with MenB as it changes itself so rapidly. Therefore, if the vaccines come into use, monitoring of MenB will be needed to watch for the emergence of any new strains that arise which have the capacity to hide from our immune responses. MRF's Meningococcal Genome Project has a crucial role to play in helping this to happen.

Our expert - Professor Chris Tang

In 2009, Professor Chris Tang became the chair of our Scientific Advisory Panel. He is currently Professor of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London at the Centre for Molecular Microbiology and Infection.

His group is interested in the interaction between bacteria and the immune system. Before taking up his post at Imperial, he worked at the University of Oxford in the Department of Paediatrics as an MRC Clinical Scientist studying the genetic basis of meningococcal disease. He studied for his PhD at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London. Chris also trained in medicine at the University of Liverpool and spent two years working in The Gambia.

Chris already has significant experience of how our Scientific Advisory Panel works, as he has been a member for some time now. His work in the field is also very well respected, and he presented some important findings at our 2009 conference, which have implications for at least two of the leading MenB vaccines currently in development.

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