Meningococcal disease is most common in infants, young children and adolescents living in close quarters, like boarding schools and college dorms. The disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis (N. meningitidis), a gram-negative bacterium. The bacterium can cause inflammation of the meninges of the brain and spinal cord, leading to severe neurological disorders and death.
In the United States young children and adolescents are vaccinated against N. meningitidis. Vaccines have been developed for serogroups A, C, Y and W135, each group having various strains of the bacterium. These groups cause approximately two-thirds of all cases of meningococcal disease.
The remaining one-third of the cases, however, is caused be the group B strain of the bacterium. Scientists have been unable to develop a vaccine against this group because it consists of over 300 strains. This group is particularly dangerous and can lead to death in a matter of hours.
Vaccines are essentially immunogens, parts of a virus or bacteria that will elicit an immune response without causing harm to the individual. When the vaccinated person encounters the whole organism or virus in the future, the antibodies they have already developed to the vaccine will provide protection.
A phase III study conducted by the pharmaceutical company, Novartis, has shown promising results for a vaccine against the deadly group B strain of N. Meningitidis. As a part of the study researchers engineered 54 immunogens, which are antigens that will elicit an immune response, in mice exposed to various strains of group B N. meningitidis.
Scientists were able to find 8 bioengineered immunogens that elicited a response against a wide array of group B strains.
This research is exciting because scientists were able to bioengineer their own immunogen. The implications for these results are vast. Researchers are one step closer to finding a vaccine for group B N. meningitides. The results from this study may also help scientists develop vaccines for the flu, HIV and malaria.