updated 11/7/2006 6:31:16 PM ET 2006-11-07T23:31:16

Biologists at Mississippi State University are studying safer vaccines for whooping cough, which can sometimes lead to brain damage or death. Lakshmi Pulakat and Nara Gavini head up a research team that discovered a mechanism in current vaccines that may trigger neurological damage among whooping cough patients.

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"Our research has unraveled a new physiological and biochemical role for a protein whose exact role in neuronal functions is still unclear," said Gavini, former head of the MSU Biological Sciences Department.

Gavini now works on a temporary basis as a program director for the National Science Foundation.

Whooping cough or pertussis is a highly contagious disease that affects about 30-50 million people worldwide, and causes more than 300,000 deaths a year. Children younger than 1 years old are often most vulnerable to the disease and developing countries account for 90 percent of all cases reported.

Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which produces various toxins upon infection, said Mary Hetrick, a member of the MSU research team and a biological sciences doctoral student.

"Neurological damage is a dangerous after-effect among patients suffering from whooping cough, and also seems to affect infants vaccinated with DPT vaccine or acellular vaccine," said Hetrick.

Hetrick said Pulakat and Gavini "have identified a novel mechanism by which the pertussis toxin can exert its ill effects and contribute to brain damage.

Since this mechanism is significantly different from the conventional understanding of the action of pertussis toxin, this study provides new possibilities to generate safer acellular vaccines to combat whopping cough," she added.

The Pulakat-Gavini team initiated the research while at Bolwing Green State University in Ohio.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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