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Scientists Closer to Developing Meningitis Vaccine

A child receives a vaccination on the opening day of a meningitis vaccination campaign in Niger, 04 Apr. 2010

One of most common strains of disease resists vaccines

Scientists may be on track to develop a vaccine for the most common strain of meningitis, which has so far resisted an effective vaccine.

Meningitis is a serious disease caused by an inflammation of the lining that protects the brain and spinal cord. Vaccines exist for most varieties of the bacteria that cause epidemics of the disease.

The disease can be fatal, even when treatment with antibiotics begins quickly. Those who survive can have permanent brain damage. So vaccination is important.

Vaccines against some strains of meningitis have been used for decades, but the method for creating them was not effective in developing a vaccine against the most common variety of the meningitis bacteria, called group B.

"For this reason, we had to find different ways. And we have been using genomics to find proteins that could be used as vaccine targets," says Rino Rappuoli of the pharmaceutical company Novartis.

He and his colleagues set out to make a substance - an immunogen - that would prompt the body to produce antibodies to fight all the numerous sub-varieties of group B.

Rappuoli and his team developed 54 candidate immunogens and tried them on laboratory mice to see which were most effective. Most of them didn't work very well.

"But we found two or three molecules, one of which was very good, which was able to induce immunity against all the variants of the molecule."

Rappuoli's work sets the stage for development of a vaccine against group B meningitis, and the researcher says coming up with a genetically-engineered, custom antigen may lead to development of vaccines against other diseases that have challenged vaccine-makers so far.

"I believe that this approach will be used more and more in the future and will help to solve some of those very difficult problems," he says.