Scientists seek next-gen whooping cough vaccines

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Despite the availability of effective prophylactic vaccines against pertussis, there has been a rise in its incidence, with epidemics in Europe, Australia and the US in the last decade. Particularly problematic in vulnerable infants, and with devastating consequences in developing countries, the incidence of pertussis is also increasing in adolescents and adults, particularly in industrialised countries. It thus remains a major public health concern worldwide.

The pan-European initiative PERISCOPE sets out to accelerate improvement of prophylactic vaccines and vaccination strategies for pertussis. The project is funded with a total budget of €28 million over the next five years by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a joint undertaking of the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). Additionally, PERISCOPE is the first IMI project to receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Professor Ronald de Groot from Radboud University Medical Center, and coordinator of PERISCOPE, said: “Given the resurgence and changing epidemiology of pertussis in industrialized countries and the persistent low level of vaccination coverage and high infant mortality caused by pertussis in low-income countries, PERISCOPE represents a concerted effort aiming to accelerate the development of improved vaccination strategies that ensure solid, long-lasting protection against infection.”

He continued: “This implies, first and foremost, that we need to gain a better understanding of the pathogenesis and underlying mechanisms of the infection to be able to identify novel vaccine candidates. However, it is equally important to rebuild the ecosystem for pertussis research and the technical infrastructure needed in Europe to successfully evaluate those novel candidates.”

PERISCOPE will focus on three major areas: 1) Setting up a comprehensive clinical research programme to study the immune response of individuals of all ages to pertussis infection and vaccination; 2) the establishment of parallel clinical and pre-clinical models of pertussis infection, and 3) the development of a comprehensive battery of state-of-the-art bioassays, to help reveal  the markers of an effective and long-lasting immune response to pertussis infection in both clinical and preclinical study subjects. PERISCOPE will also seek to study immunisation in pregnancy to gain a better understanding of the impact of maternal antibodies on the infant’s immune responses to pertussis.

Professor of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, Kingston Mills, will lead the pre-clinical work in the project. In the frame of this ambitious project, Professor Mills and his team at Trinity will perform pre-clinical research designed to elucidate the immunological mechanism of protection induced with the current vaccine against whooping cough.

Professor Mills said: “I am delighted to be involved in this project funded by the EU Innovative Medicines Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where we use our immunology expertise to increase the knowledge on the mechanisms of immunity to Bordetella pertussis, which will inform the design of a new pertussis vaccine. Our major role in this medically important pan-European project is a reflection of the increasing strength in immunology research at Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute and Trinity College Dublin.”

PERISCOPE assembles a multi-national team of leading experts from 22 partnering institutions with long-standing experience in pertussis research, clinical trials, bioinformatics, immunology and public health. The consortium also includes Sanofi Pasteur and GlaxoSmithKline, two of the world’s largest and most experienced vaccine manufacturers, as industrial partners.