University of Iowa researchers develop new staph infection vaccine

Next step will be to approach FDA; researchers hope vaccine will be available in two years

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

University of Iowa researchers have developed a new vaccine to protect against Staphylococcus-caused pneumonia, and they hope it will be preventing illnesses and saving lives in as soon as two years.

The vaccine targets infections caused by Staphylococus aureus bacteria, commonly called staph, including drug-resistant strains like MRSA that kill thousands of Americans every year. Because some influenza-related deaths are caused by secondary staph infections, the new vaccine also could lessen the impact of the seasonal flu, said UI professor Patrick Schlievert, chair of microbiology in the UI Carver College of Medicine who led the vaccination research.

“We could bring the flu death rate down to near zero,” Schlievert said.

Findings of the UI-led research were published this month in the Journal of Infectious Disease and in a blog for Science magazine. Schlievert said the next step is to approach the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about beginning a safety study in the coming months.

A clinical trial would follow – possibly by the end of 2014 or early 2015, Schlievert said. Ideally, he said, the new vaccine would be given with the Tdap shot, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

“I would like to see it available in two years,” he said.

Staph bacteria are the most significant cause of serious infection and infection-linked fatalities in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 70,000 Americans develop staphylococcal pneumonia every year, many of whom die.

Prior attempts at a vaccine have failed, Schlievert said, and people continue to get sick and die.

“There is a huge need for the vaccine,” he said. “So can we move this forward faster than slower?”

The new vaccine works by targeting toxins produced by staph and responsible for serious and sometimes deadly infection symptoms like fever, low blood pressure and toxic shock. The UI-led research analyzed whether a vaccine could block the action of the toxins and prevent the illness.

Researchers used an animal model of staph infection that resembled a human one and found that vaccination against three staph toxins provided “almost complete protection against staph infections,” according to UI News Services. The animals in the study were protected from illness even when given high doses of bacteria directly in their lungs, Schlievert said.

And, seven days later, the animals not only were alive but free of the disease-causing bacteria.

“Our study suggests that vaccination against these toxins may provide protection against all strains of staph,” Schlievert said.

Based on research standards measuring the likelihood that the findings occurred by chance, Schlievert said his team’s results are “unbelievably significant.”

“There is no chance that happened by accident,” he said.

News of the new vaccine that could ease the effects of seasonal flu, among other things, comes as this season’s flu virus ramps up nationwide. In 90 percent of the past 20 years, flu season peaks from January to March, and activity so far this season is elevated both nationally and regionally, according to the CDC.

In Iowa’s four-state region since Sept. 29, 17.1 percent of patients seen for flu-like symptoms tested positive for the virus, according to the CDC. When looking just at Iowa for the week ending Dec. 21, 17.2 percent of patients seen for flu symptoms tested positive, the CDC reports.

During the 2012-13 season, people aged 65 and older were hit hard by the bug and were hospitalized at a rate of 182 per 100,000 nationally. The CDC last season also reported the highest number of flu-related deaths among children in a non-pandemic season – 169 – and an estimated 381,000 U.S. hospitalizations from the flu.

A new report released by the CDC earlier this month highlighted the benefits of getting a flu vaccine. According to the report’s estimates, the vaccine prevented 6.6 million illnesses and 79,000 hospitalizations last season.

Schlievert said he would like to see the new staph-related vaccination given in addition to the seasonal flu vaccine.Working with Schlievert on the project are UI researchers Adam Spaulding, Wilmara Salgado-Pabon, Joseph Merriman, and Christopher Stach, along with University of Minnesota researchers Yinduo Ji, Aaron Gillman, and Marnie Peterson, according to UI News Services.