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Researchers develop new vaccine against deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

Jun 24, 2019, 01:10 AM by Donna Ramirez

A collaborative team from UTMB, Saudi Arabia and Canada has developed a potent and safe vaccine that protects against the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. 

image of infection for MERS vaccine research storyMERS, which was first identified in 2012 after a patient died from a viral infection, can cause severe and fatal respiratory symptoms, systemic infection and multi-organ failure. It has caused 2,250 confirmed infections with a 35 percent mortality rate in 27 countries. 

The virus can be spread from camel to human or person to person, and many global cases are linked with the Arabian Peninsula because of its high camel population. However, it has the potential to spread globally, as evidenced in a 2015 outbreak in South Korea. 

“In the past, we’ve mainly focused on developing universal influenza vaccines by targeting the viral proteins to specific cells that have a molecule called CD40 on their surfaces,” said senior author Dr. Chien-Te K Tseng, a professor in UTMB’s Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. “We modified and optimized our earlier vaccine platform to generate new potential MERS vaccines.” 

Tseng said that although other research groups have investigated various MERS vaccines in animals, serious safety concerns are often associated with vaccines for the family of viruses that MERS belongs to. The current study set out to use a different vaccine platform that was safer yet still effective. 

The research team made two versions of a potential vaccine and evaluated their effectiveness and safety in mice that were genetically altered to have more human-like immune responses. After the mice were vaccinated and then infected with MERS-CoV, both vaccines protected the mice against clinical signs of disease and death. However, one of the vaccines was unable to stop the virus from causing lung damage. Use of the other potential vaccine, which more selectively targeted cells with CD40, stopped the virus from damaging the lungs. 

“Our platform offers a promising strategy for enhancing the safety and potency of the MERS vaccine and can also be used to enhance the safety and efficacy of vaccines against a broad range of pathogens,” said lead author Dr. Anwar Hashem, associate professor at King Fahd Medical Research Center and Faculty of Medicine, King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. 

UTMB Drs. Abdullah Algaissi, Anurodh Agrawal and Bi-Hung Peng also contributed as authors of the report, which was recently published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases.