Study: New Vaccine Approach Against Viruses

February 5, 2014 — CHOP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer, Philip R. Johnson, MD, is among the co-authors of a new study in the journal Nature that presents proof-of-principle for an advanced approach to vaccine design. This innovation, which custom designs new proteins as vaccine components, offers promise as a new way to prevent serious childhood infections caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). More broadly, it may enable the creation of new vaccines against evolving, difficult-to-treat diseases such as HIV, influenza and hepatitis C.

Image of Philip R. Johnson Jr., MD Philip R. Johnson Jr., MD The collaborative study, published online Feb. 5 in Nature, was led by William R. Schief, PhD, and colleagues from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA.

Existing vaccines use inactivated viruses or similar particles to stimulate the body’s immune system to release infection-fighting antibodies. However, rapidly evolving infectious agents such as HIV have been able to change quickly enough to evade traditional vaccine candidates. Hence vaccine experts have been working to design new vaccines to elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies that strike against hidden vulnerable structures within quick-changing viruses.

The new strategy uses sophisticated techniques to imitate an epitope — a structure specific to each type of invading virus that is recognized by the immune system. The scientists used special software to design flexible protein scaffolds to hold the epitope that induces the immune system to produce protective antibodies.

In the new study, the research team induced potent antibodies in non-human primates against RSV, which commonly makes human babies sick, and kills large numbers of infants worldwide. The successful experiment offers proof-of-principle that this approach is feasible for developing a first RSV vaccine in humans, as well as for developing potential future vaccines against HIV, influenza and hepatitis C.

This work builds on previous laboratory research by Dr. Johnson aimed at finding innovative methods in vaccine design. In 2009, for example, his team published a study in Nature Medicine that used gene therapy to produce antibody-like proteins to protect monkeys from the animal counterpart to HIV. In the current study, he performed laboratory experiments using his collaborators’ newly designed proteins to immunize monkeys from RSV.

“Bringing these new types of vaccines into clinical use will take years of work, but this week’s study represents an important first step along the way,” said Dr. Johnson.

Published on in CHOP News