VIDO Tech Report: VIDO uses livestock expertise to tackle whooping cough in humans

Mar 2, 2004

Scientists at the Vaccine & Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan are using their expertise in livestock disease research to target a new vaccine against whooping cough in newborn humans.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious, acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Widespread use of vaccines has dramatically reduced incidence of this potentially fatal disease, but it still afflicts up to 40 million children worldwide. It is a major threat for children in the first six months of life – the period before most vaccines, including those for pertussis, are effective.

VIDO researchers plan to close this gap by developing new whooping cough vaccine formulations and methods for use that provide protection to younger infants. If successful, this would be a major breakthrough in ‘neonatal’ or newborn vaccination.

“One of the greatest times of susceptibility to infection, for both animals and humans, is the neonatal stage of development,” says Dr. Andy Potter, VIDO Associate Director (Research). “The neonate encounters hundreds of pathogens for the first time, its immune system is not yet fully developed and traditional vaccination at this stage is often ineffective. A successful vaccine system for this stage would open broad potential for neonatal vaccination against many diseases in many species.”

One of the major challenges of neonatal vaccination is overcoming the interference of natural antibodies passed from the mother to the newborn, he says. Newborns typically receive these antibodies through colostrum and milk secreted by the mother. While these maternal antibodies provide valuable protection to the newborn, they can also “blind” the infant’s immune system to vaccine antigens delivered by vaccination.

VIDO plans to meet this challenge by developing vaccine formulations that stimulate immunity at mucosal surfaces, such as the lining of the lungs or intestines, says the scientist leading the project, Dr. Volker Gerdts. “This approach is expected to be highly effective. Mucosal surfaces are the main entry point for more than 95 per cent of all pathogens that infect humans and animals, including pertussis – we will be building protection at the very first point of contact.”

The lack of practical models to study infectious diseases and test vaccine systems at the neonatal stage has long been an obstacle to this type of research, says Potter. This is why VIDO’s strong history, expertise and resources in developing models for infectious diseases give the organization a distinct advantage.

“We have now successfully developed a relevant model for B. pertussis infection and will soon start to test the first vaccines,” says Gerdts. “However, several years of vaccine formulation and testing will still be required to identify an effective vaccine formulation for humans.”

The Vaccine & Infectious Disease Organization is a world leader in vaccine research for the control of infectious diseases and is a wholly owned University of Saskatchewan not-for-profit institute. It operates with substantial support from the Government of Alberta and the Government of Saskatchewan as well as Government of Canada competitive grants.