University of Southern California Researchers Develop Vaccine That Boosts Immunity and Helps Patients Avoid Deadly Infections While in Hospitals
New vaccine could give clinical laboratories and antimicrobial stewardship programs the tool they need to dramatically reduce hospital-acquired infections
Healthcare providers and clinical laboratories continue to struggle against hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) and ever-evolving antimicrobial resistant (AMR) bacteria. But now, the University of Southern California (USC) has developed and patented an experimental vaccine that has been shown to protect against so-called “superbugs,” such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an AMR bacteria that causes potentially deadly staph infections in hospitals and other healthcare settings.
Developed by senior study author Brad Spellberg, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Los Angeles General Medical Center, and colleagues, “The experimental vaccine takes an entirely different approach: It gooses the body’s preexisting supply of pathogen-gobbling immune cells called macrophages, which engulf and digest bacteria, fungi, and other bad actors. These activated fighters, found in all tissues, quickly neutralize incoming invaders which might otherwise multiply rapidly and overwhelm the body’s defenses,” USC Today reported.
“This is very different from developing new antibiotics,” Jun Yan, a doctoral student at Keck School of Medicine and the study’s first author, told USC Today. “This is using our own immune system to fight against different superbugs, which is a different approach than everybody else.”
To develop the vaccine [the USC researchers] formed a biotechnology startup called ExBaq LLC in Bethesda, Md.
They published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine title, “A Protein-Free Vaccine Stimulates Innate Immunity and Protects against Nosocomial Pathogens.”
“The pandemic stimulated unprecedented innovation in vaccine development, where federal funding and university-industry partnerships were game changers for translating promising discoveries from academic labs for the good of all,” said Ishwar K. Puri, PhD (above), senior vice president of research and innovation at USC. “We are both pleased and proud of the critical support the USC Stevens Center provided to enable the development of ExBaq’s experimental vaccine that protects vulnerable populations from serious infections.” Clinical laboratories that work with hospitals in the fight against hospital-acquired infections understand the importance of this discovery. (Photo copyright: University of Southern California.)
USC Vaccine Details
The USC team developed a “protein-free vaccine, composed of aluminum hydroxide, monophosphoryl lipid A, and fungal mannan, that stimulates the innate immune system and confers protection,” the researchers wrote in Science Translational Medicine.
“Tested in two independent labs, the vaccine works within 24 hours and lasts for up to 28 days. In lab models, the number of pathogen-eating immune cells in the blood increased dramatically, and survival time of invasive blood and lung infections improved. Early data suggest that a second dose could extend the window to prevent infection,” USC Today reported.
Unlike anything currently available, the new vaccine focuses on boosting the body itself instead of creating antibodies against certain pathogens. A mere dose of the vaccine is described to “provide rapid protection against nine different bacteria and fungi species,” USC Today noted.
“It’s an early warning system. It’s like Homeland Security putting out a terror alert. Everybody, keep your eyes open. Keep an eye out for suspicious packages. You’re alerting the soldiers and tanks of your immune system. The vaccine activates them,” Spellberg told USC Today.
“The vaccine acted through stimulation of the innate, rather than the adaptive, immune system, as demonstrated by efficacy in the absence of lymphocytes that were abrogated by macrophage depletion. A role for macrophages was further supported by the finding that vaccination induced macrophage epigenetic alterations that modulated phagocytosis and the inflammatory response to infection. Together, these data show that this protein-free vaccine is a promising strategy to prevent deadly antimicrobial-resistant healthcare-associated infections,” the researchers wrote in Science Translational Medicine.
Great Need for This Protection
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.7 million infections and 99,000 deaths are caused by HAIs annually.
“Patients who acquire infections from surgery spend, on average, an additional 6.5 days in the hospital, are five times more likely to be readmitted after discharge and twice as likely to die. Moreover, surgical patients who develop infections are 60% more likely to require admission to a hospital’s intensive care unit. Surgical infections are believed to account for up to 10 billion dollars annually in healthcare expenditures,” the CDC reports.
“All hospitalized patients are susceptible to contracting a [hospital-acquired] infection. Some patients are at greater risk than others: young children, the elderly, and persons with compromised immune systems are more likely to get an infection. Other risk factors are long hospital stays, the use of indwelling catheters, failure of healthcare workers to wash their hands, and overuse of antibiotics,” the CDC notes.
Therefore, USC’s new vaccine may be just what the doctor ordered to protect patients in hospitals and other healthcare settings from deadly HAIs.
There are currently no vaccines that are FDA-approved that treat “the most serious antibiotic resistant infections,” USC Today reported.
“Even if there were such vaccines, multiple vaccines would have to be deployed simultaneously to protect against the full slate of antibiotic-resistant microbes that cause healthcare-acquired infections,” Brian Luna, PhD, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, told USC Today.
Thus, USC’s new vaccine could be a boon to hospital antimicrobial stewardship programs. But so far, it has only been tested on mice.
“The next step is getting guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the design of a clinical trial. The first such trial would be done in healthy volunteers to find the right dose of vaccine that is safe and triggers the same kind of immune response in people as seen in the mice,” USC Today reported.
ExBaq LLC has begun talking with potential larger partners who might be willing to help develop the vaccine into clinical testing.
For years hospitals and other healthcare settings—such as long-term care facilities, urgent care clinics, and clinical laboratories—have fought an uphill battle against superbugs. So, for a vaccine to be on the horizon that can prevent life-threatening hospital-acquired infections would be a game changer.
With antimicrobial stewardships being a requirement in all hospitals, medical laboratory managers and microbiologists may celebrate this new development and its potential to be a useful tool in fighting antimicrobial resistant bacteria in their facilities.
—Kristin Althea O’Connor