LMU researchers, led by Dr. Gerd Sutter, have developed the first vaccine against the MERS virus, responsible for the recent outbreak in the Middle East.
Last year, a mysterious new disease stroke its first victim in Saudi Arabia and since then there have been 114 confirmed cases, with 54 people dying from the condition. Patients are mostly from the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, but there have been some cases in the UK, France and Italy.
The virus responsible has been dubbed 'Middle East Respiratory Syndrome' or MERS for short and most likely originated from bats. Recently, a team from Columbia University found an Egyptian tomb bat infected with the same virus as the first patient to die from this condition.
To combat this disease, a team from LMU's Institute for Infectious Diseases and Zoonoses alongside researchers from Marburg University and the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam produced the first vaccine against the MERS virus. The new vaccine was created from a modified vaccinia virus Ankara (or MVA), which has been used for over 30 years to produce the small pox vaccine. "The candidate vaccine we have developed is the first one directed against the MERS coronavirus that could be administered to humans, as an emergency measure, in the event of an epidemic," said Dr. Sutter in a press release.
Researchers know that the MERS virus binds to human cells by a protein located in its membrane envelope called Spike or S protein. The trick was to insert the gene for the S protein into the MVA genome, forcing the body to produce antibodies that can recognise this protein if attacked by the MERS virus. Initial studies in mice were very effective at blocking the infection.
"We have produced the best vaccine possible given the present state of our knowledge," said Dr Sutter. "This demonstrates that, using our method, we can fabricate a candidate vaccine within less than a year. MVA-MERS-S could be used as it stands for the production of a vaccine."
The good news is that, in the event of a MERS epidemic, the vaccine is ready for production and distribution. As an added bonus, this work demonstrated a potential way to create vaccines against other viral infections in a relatively short period of time.