Posted in UR Success Stories

Conjugate Vaccine Technology Saves Lives!

Licensing patents that result from University of Rochester research for commercial use is at the heart of technology transfer. A number of technologies licensed by the University of Rochester have gone on to save thousands of lives all around the world. These technologies not only changed the face of medicine, but reaffirm the University of Rochester’s reputation as a ground-breaking research institution.

One such technology that has influenced the world of medicine in a very big way is the Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine. The vaccine was based on innovative research that began in the 1970s at the Children’s Hospital at Strong (Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong). Dr. Porter Anderson, Ph.D., Dr. Richard Insel, M.D., and Dr. David Smith, M.D., were the first group of researchers to develop and test the concept of a “conjugate” vaccine, a method to make a vaccine more effective by linking it to a protein that would spur an infant’s immune system to fight an infection vigorously.

At the time, Hib was the leading cause of meningitis in children, as well as the primary cause of acquired mental retardation and acquired deafness in children.

After successful preliminary trials in the 1980’s, the group worked hard to persuade a pharmaceutical firm to license and develop the technology. However, industry was not concerned with vaccine research at this time, and the offer was declined. So the team, lead by Smith, founded Praxis Biologics to develop and commercialize the vaccine.

The Hib vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1990, and became one of the first vaccines, in 20 years, to be recommended by the FDA for universal use in children. Following the introduction of the Hib vaccine, illnesses caused by the disease, in the United States, have fallen from 20,000 cases a year to about 200 cases a year. The Hib vaccine, which virtually wiped out infection caused by the microbe, was a tremendous step forward for preventative medicine.

The second microbe to be targeted by the “conjugate” vaccine approach was Pneumococcus. This new vaccine was developed to prevent invasive infections by pneumococcal bacteria, which causes meningitis, ear infections, pneumonia, and other diseases in children under the age of two. Researchers estimate that in the developing world about one million people die each year of infections caused by the pneumococcal bacteria.

The vaccine was licensed and developed by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, and introduced in 2000 as Prevnar. In February 2000, Prevnar was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the first conjugate vaccine to protect infants and children against bacterial meningitis, ear infections and pneumonia. At the time, Prevnar provided immunity to seven strains of the bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that it be given to all children younger than two years.

From 1998-2001, the rate of infection among children less than two years of age, in seven cities around the nation, including Rochester, fell 69%.

In 2001, a second-generation Prevnar vaccine was tested on adults, specifically those 65 years of age and older, for protection against pneumonia. The research was part of an effort by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to find ways to improve the performance of vaccines in at-risk groups such as the elderly. The research proved that the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine was effective in fighting pneumococcal bacteria in the elderly and that it could be used to prevent pneumonia in both children and adults.

Today, Prevnar protects against 76 strains of Streptococcus pneumonia. The results of the vaccines efficacy are overwhelming and the number of lives it has saved is even more impressive, making Prevnar one of the most important vaccines on the market.

A third conjugate vaccine, aimed at preventing disease caused by the meningococcus microbe, is also based on this technology. This bacterium causes spinal meningitis and bloodstream infections that are extremely contagious and deadly. The vaccine is available in some parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.

The concept of the conjugate vaccine, first developed and tested by UR researchers in the 1970’s, has gone on to be one of the university’s most successful endeavors. The work done here has saved thousands, if not millions, of lives and has paved the way for vaccine research far into the future.