Biotech vaccine against dangerous respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
Children’s hospitals in Switzerland are currently seeing a record surge in infections with the RSV virus, which causes coughing and shortness of breath. A breakthrough in basic research now enables the development of effective vaccines. Clinical trials are encouraging.
A massive wave of infections with the human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is not only affecting Switzerland, but also other European countries and the USA. As a result, children’s hospitals are overcrowded, beds are running out and surgeries have to be postponed. The pathogen can cause severe bronchitis with shortness of breath.
Babies particularly affected
Infants in the first year of life are particularly affected, and the severe cough prevents them from drinking properly. In serious cases, admission to hospital is required. There, babies can be supplied with oxygen, an infusion or artificial nutrition, if necessary. As a rule, young patients recover soon. What’s left is an experience you wouldn’t wish for the children or the parents.
Unfortunately, RSV is one of the few pathogens of childhood diseases for which there isn't yet any effective and approved vaccine protection. As early as the 1960s, a vaccine with complete but attenuated pathogens was tested. However, it caused such severe side effects that development was postponed for a long time.
Biotech vaccine as an opportunity
Modern approaches are much safer and use only individual components of a pathogen that are produced using biotechnological methods for immunisation. For RSV, a protein that sits on the surface of the virus was a good candidate. However, this protein can take different forms, only a few of which sufficiently stimulate the immune system. This slowed down progress in vaccine development for an extended period of time.
A team of researchers from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) made an important breakthrough in 2013: by studying the spatial structure of different protein variants, they identified a stable version which causes a clear immune response and can therefore serve as the basis for an RSV vaccine.
Several companies immediately began developing a vaccine against RSV on the basis of these research results, including the scienceindustries member companies Pfizer, GSK and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson. In November 2022, Pfizer presented the results of a large clinical trial involving 7,400 pregnant women from 18 countries for the youngest group of patients in the first months of life. This is because mothers pass on their antibodies very effectively to the unborn child and thus contribute to its immune protection.
The trials proved that the Pfizer vaccine was well tolerated and that it was 81.8% effective against severe RSV infections in babies during the first three months of life. With these promising results, effective vaccination protection for young children against RSV could soon become a reality once the approval process has been completed.
RSV vaccination also for older adults
Not only babies, but also seniors can get serious and sometimes life-threatening RSV. GSK, Pfizer and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson have already presented positive results for RSV vaccines for this target group, and other companies are also working on them. GSK has recently submitted an application for an RSV vaccine for older adults. Here, too, the first products could be launched soon, and demand is high.
Dr. Jan Lucht
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