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Vaccine study underway to combat meningitis

Press release issued: 14 December 2009

Scientists at the University of Bristol have embarked on a ground-breaking study to help protect people from the killer disease meningitis. Volunteers will be given a vaccination and then the reaction of the immune system in the back of their throats will be analysed as part of a wider project to reduce cases of the disease.

Volunteers will be given a vaccination and then the reaction of the immune system in the back of their throats will be analysed as part of a wider project to reduce cases of the disease.

Although no vaccine exists for the deadly meningitis B in the UK, researchers are using one that was developed for an outbreak of the disease in New Zealand.

The first phase of the project, which studied responses that occured after natural exposure to meningococcus B in around 35 volunteers, is now nearing completion.

The four-year programme is being led by Professor Neil Williams and Professor Robert Heyderman, who have been awarded £200,000 by Downend-based Meningitis UK for this vital research.

It is being supported by University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, which is handling the management of the trial.

Now, volunteers who are undergoing tonsillectomies are being given the New Zealand meningitis B vaccine to enable the researchers to analyse how the immune system in the back of people’s throats – known as mucosal immunity – responds and to gauge how best to deliver meningitis vaccines in the future.

Professor Williams said: “The initial phase with unvaccinated people has gone incredibly well and we’ve learnt a lot already.

“We’re very excited about now being in the vaccine stage and we think that the findings will enable us to understand the best way to employ new vaccines when they come along.”

Meningitis B remains the most common and complex form of the disease in the UK and is a major threat to children under five and students.

The Meningitis B vaccine being used in New Zealand only addresses a single strain of Meningitis B, which was a particular problem there.  This vaccine is not being used in the UK outside of this research as it would not have a significant impact on the disease, which is caused by a wide variety of strains.

While bacterial meningitis and septicaemia are rare, the bacteria which cause the disease are quite common and are carried by up to 40 per cent of the population at any one time.  These normally live harmlessly at the back of the nose and throat, but it’s important to understand why the bacteria can sometimes turn into a deadly killer.

Professor Williams explained: “It’s very common to have meningococcal bacteria living in our throats.  In most of us that is where they stay, but in a very few they can enter the body and cause disease.  This is why we’re looking at how people’s throats react to a vaccine.

“Scientists tend to study what goes on in the blood but we hope this new method will help us understand better how vaccines need to be delivered.”

The success of national vaccine programmes to protect against Meningitis C, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and pneumococcal meningitis is partly down to their ability to produce herd immunity.

The researchers at the University of Bristol believe it’s important to develop a vaccine for Meningitis B which not only stops the harmful bacteria invading the body but also reduces the carriage rates of the bacteria.

Meningitis UK awarded the project £200,000 as part of its grant round in 2006.  Over £150,000 of the funding came from the Bristol-based James Tudor Foundation which wanted to support the charity’s Search 4 a Vaccine Campaign to eradicate Meningitis B.

Volunteer Corrina Hampson, from Cotham, said she did not know much about the project initially but is pleased to be able to play a part in research which might help save thousands of lives in the future.

She said: “Initially I wasn’t very knowledgeable about what I was volunteering for but I now realise how important the study is to help protect future generations from such a devastating disease.”

Meningitis UK has raised £4.7million towards vital vaccine research since it was established in 1999.  Its Chief Executive Steve Dayman has been committed to eradicating the Meningitis B strain since the devastating loss of his 14-month-old son Spencer in 1982. 

Researchers predict the ultimate goal of a life-saving vaccine could be achieved within the next five to 10 years – news Steve thought he would never hear.

He said: “When Spencer died, I was told I would never see a vaccine in my lifetime.  Even when Meningitis UK opened its first office in Fishponds 10 years ago it seemed a distant ambition.  But during this period we’ve moved from basic research to cutting-edge clinical trials, such as the ones underway at the University of Bristol.  Initial results from their volunteer studies are very encouraging and it’s great that Bristol’s making such an impact on the world of meningitis research.”

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