In one of the most significant advances in a decade, researchers say they have obtained powerful immune responses in 150 infants on whom the vaccine was tested, suggesting that it would be pro-active in defeating the group B type of the disease. An effective vaccine against meningitis B could virtually eliminate the devastating bacterial infection from Britain and other European countries. Vaccines against group C meningitis, which was introduced in 1999, and Hib meningitis in 1992, have reduced these causes of the disease by more than 90 per cent.
Head of the vaccine evaluation department at the Health Protection Agency in Manchester, Dr Rob Borrow said, “I believe we should be very excited indeed. Ten years ago we had success with a vaccine against group C disease but, so far, we have had no real prospect of controlling group B disease.
“There are 20,000 to 80,000 cases of meningitis B globally and roughly 1,200 cases in the UK each year, of which 10 per cent result in death. The prospect of one vaccine that protects infants worldwide against [meningitis B] would be a key achievement in global disease prevention of our time.”
Parents have lived in terror of meningitis for many years because it targets the young, strikes with unnerving speed and ferocity, and kills one in 10 of those it infects. Generally, survivors of the disease suffer permanent disability including deafness, neurological problems and loss of limbs.
The meningitis bacterium lives harmlessly in the noses and throats of one in 10 people but, for reasons that are not fully understood, can erupt into a life-threatening illness that causes inflammation of the membrane around the brain - the “meninges” - and leads to death within hours.
Group B is the dominant strain in England, accounting for 84 per cent of the 1,283 cases of meningococcal disease recorded last year.
Group B vaccines have been developed before and are in use in Cuba and New Zealand but these are only effective against the single strains circulating in those countries.
The new vaccine contains multiple “antigens” - bacterial proteins designed to counter different strains - developed from a study of 85 strains of group B disease. It has so far been tested against three “representative” strains in the current trial.
The 150 babies in the study were given the vaccine at ages two, four, six and 12 months. Laboratory tests on blood samples showed they had better than 85 per cent protection against the three strains.
The vaccine was developed by the Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis, and is currently being tested by an independent team led by Elizabeth Miller, the head of the immunization department at the Centre for Infections - part of the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
Dr Borrow, who heads the regional HPA laboratory in Manchester and is a member of the team, presented the findings to the European Society of Paediatric Infectious Diseases in Austria yesterday. He said the laboratory results for the group B vaccine were as good as those for the group C vaccine a decade ago “and we have now virtually eliminated group C disease”. He added: “I am confident this vaccine will provide broad protection against a range of strains of group B disease. We have full data on three strains and partial data on two more strains which are representative of other components of the vaccine.”
A third and final trial, involving hundreds of British children, began earlier this year. Assuming these tests are successful, it would still be “some years” before a vaccine was introduced, Dr Borrow said.
A spokesman for the Meningitis Research Foundation said: “This is really exciting news. It is what we have been working towards. If it goes through phase three trials [successfully], we will have cracked the Holy Grail. It will be virtually the end of the story on meningitis and it will put organizations like ours out of business.”
The vaccine was developed using a method called “reverse vaccinology” in which the genetic make-up of a single strain was first decoded. This yielded 600 novel proteins from which the vaccine was constructed, using genetic engineering to pick those that showed the greatest ability to stimulate the immune system.