updated 6/30/2005 4:04:03 PM ET 2005-06-30T20:04:03

Scientists hunting a vaccine to protect newborns from a severe infection not only found a promising candidate, they developed a new way to speed the search for vaccines against other hard-to-fight diseases, too.

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It’s a gene-searching technique that goes by the humble name “multiple genome screen.” But the research, led by Chiron Corp., elicited a “wow” from the government’s infectious disease chief.

“It opens up a new arena” in developing vaccines against multiple strains of diseases, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “This is a very, very elegant, potentially usable avenue to go after that whole concept of universal vaccines.”

The first candidate: a possible vaccine against Group B strep, a germ that lurks harmlessly in many women’s bodies but that can be fatal or brain-damaging if passed to their infants during birth.

Dangerous for newborns
So far, the experimental vaccine has been tested only in mice. But studies reported Thursday in the journal Science suggest it’s the first candidate in two decades that might protect against all major strains of Group B strep. Chiron’s lead researcher says the company is discussing with U.S. regulators how to begin human testing.

“We are very excited because we do have, now, something we believe will work,” said Guido Grandi, vice president for research at Chiron’s vaccine division in Siena, Italy.

Group B streptococcus, a cousin of the germ that causes strep throat, is found in up to 40 percent of women. It usually causes them no symptoms. But it’s the most common cause of blood infection and meningitis in newborns.

In the United States, pregnant women are supposed to be tested for Group B strep during the third trimester, and carriers are given intravenous antibiotics during labor. That policy has cut infant infections by 70 percent since 1996 — but still, Group B strep sickens about 2,500 U.S. newborns each year and kills 80 to 100.

There are numerous strains of the germ, and previous attempts at vaccines couldn’t offer universal protection.

Enter the new genetic technique.

Instead of laboriously growing the bacteria in laboratory dishes — a usual step in vaccine creation — the scientists used computers to rapidly identify all the genes in eight major strains of Group B strep.

First they teased out genes shared by all the strains, said Herve Tettelin, a molecular biologist with The Institute for Genomic Research, a Rockville, Md., nonprofit group that collaborated with Chiron.

Then they identified additional genes that produce proteins on the germs’ surface — easy for the immune system to spot and thus important for a vaccine, he explained.

Highly effective
Mouse testing revealed four proteins that seemed to spark the most immune response. So the scientists brewed those four proteins into a single vaccine, inoculated adult female mice, mated them and exposed the resulting babies to Group B strep.

The vaccine proved 87 percent protective.

Chiron is most interested in testing the experimental vaccine in teenagers, to see if protection would last years later when they became pregnant, Grandi said.

More exciting, the genetic-screening technique may help develop vaccines against a variety of microbes where multiple-strain protection is a roadblock, said Fauci, whose National Institutes of Health division helped fund the research. “We’ll certainly be pursuing it,” he said.

Already, Tettelin said his research group is using the technique to identify the genes in multiple strains of food-poisoning E. coli, bacterial pneumonia and a potential bioterror agent called burkholderia.

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