‘Prevention is better than cure’ – Oxford leads in vaccine research

Like wars and famine, infectious diseases are an eternal challenge to human progress and development. They remain among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide. Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and their links with climate change are making the scenario worse. The ongoing problems of Malaria, Tuberculosis and HIV and recent outbreaks of the Ebola virus, Zika virus, Chikungunya fever, Pandemic influenza and others putting science on the verge of crisis. All these deadly outbreaks are very difficult and complicated to manage. This reminds us of the simple proverb – ‘prevention is better than cure’.

So vaccine research is now the key scientific focus in infectious diseases throughout the globe. The University of Oxford, particularly the Jenner institute is leading this research. This institute’s investigators now make up one of the largest centers of academic vaccine research and development globally. It was established in 2005 with the partnership of the Pirbright institute. Currently 32 principal investigators are working under this umbrella and pursuing to develop vaccines for both humans and animals. Professor Adrian Hill is the current director of Jenner institute. In their recent newsletter he mentioned, ‘’New vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis and HIV are currently in field trials in the developing world….within the past few months Jenner researchers have received major funding to manufacture and clinically develop vaccine candidates against several outbreak pathogens of international concern: Zika, Chikungunya, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Rift Valley fever.’’

Prof. Arturo Reyes-Sandoval and his groups are working on Zika and Chikungunya virus. The Zika virus is an emerging viral infection spread via Aedes aegypti mosquito. It spreads so rapidly that within only two years it has appeared in more than 39 countries in the Americas. The World Health Organization (WHO) declares it an international public health emergency due to its connection to congenital malformation (babies born with small heads) and neurological complications. Pregnant women and those of reproductive age are the priority vaccine candidates. The research group is trying to develop another virus (simian adeno virus) as a vector which will express the antigen structure of Zika virus to our natural immune system with an aim to boost strong immune response against it. Prof. Arturo’s team is expecting to go for clinical trials by April 2017. Similar to Zika, the Chikungunya virus is also spread by aedes mosquito. It is an emerging problem in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas. The virus causes a high fever and chronic debilitating joint pain. In India alone 1.39 million cases were reported in 2006. Prof. Arturo and his group have already developed a vaccine which is able to induce high immune response against the virus. The phase I clinical trial is expected to take place in Oxford this year.

MERS is considered as one of the horrifying respiratory illness currently endemic in the Middle East and spreading to several other regions. Korea is the recent victim of this deadly virus. Scientists have identified camels as the source of this pathogen. MERS has been chosen by the WHO as the highest priority disease for vaccine development. Prof. Sarah Gilbert of the Jenner Institute and her group have developed a vaccine which has shown promising results in early preclinical studies. The vaccine will be tried in camels very soon which might give the world an ultimate solution. If they can control the infection in camels, human disease will be controlled. Prof. Gilbert’s group soon will also conduct a phase I human trial in UK, followed by a further trial in Saudi Arabia.

Vaccine research is now the key scientific focus in infectious diseases throughout the globe.

The recent Ebola outbreak has shaken the whole world because of its high mortality rate and rapid spread. The epidemic began in Guinea in December 2013 and so far has killed 11,300 people in West Africa. In August 2014 W.H.O declared it as a public health emergency. The Jenner institute along with other partners responded promptly and commenced clinical trials to evaluate two existing vaccines. Phase I trial for the ‘MVA ZEBOV GP’ candidate Ebola vaccine was completed during the outbreak and showed promising result. The institute successfully launched another vaccine trial in Senegal. They are trying a genetically modified ChAd3 vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with an acceptable safety profile and immune response. Another combination vaccine developed by Dr. Matthew Snape showed encouraging results against Ebola. The regimen is now undergoing phase II and III clinical trials.

More development is in the pipeline. The University has launched a company called, ‘Vaccitech’ in May 2016 with a £10 million investment from Oxford Sciences Innovation. The company is jointly co-founded by Prof. Adrian Hill and Prof. Sarah Gilbert. Their most innovative and advanced program is to market an effective vaccine against seasonal flu. Every year seasonal flu is responsible for approximately 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide. Extremes of age are the most vulnerable groups to death. Besides, ‘Vaccitech’ is also trying to develop a therapeutic vaccine against prostate cancer.

Research is also progressing for new livestock vaccines such as foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza, bovine tuberculosis and more. As Professor Hill said, ‘’Overall, these efforts should help ensure that we are much less likely to be faced with a major uncontrollable outbreak, such as Ebola virus disease in 2014, with no vaccines available to save lives for many months.’’ Although the doomsday scenario in the thriller film, ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ may be far from reality, it is clear that emerging infectious diseases are challenging mankind. Scientists in Oxford are trying their best to face those threats.