The University of Liverpool is leading on a major new collaborative project to develop a Zika virus vaccine that is suitable for use in pregnancy.
Supported by a £4.7million award from Department of Health and Social Care, managed by Innovate UK, the new project aims to take two new vaccine candidates through to a clinical trial in humans within the next three years.
Pregnant women continue to be the population at highest risk of a Zika virus infection as the virus can cause severe foetal birth defects. However, no approved vaccine or treatment is currently available.
In collaboration with the University of Manchester, Public Health England and industry, the researchers plan to confirm the safety of two new vaccine candidates, based on a safe derivative of a pre-existing smallpox vaccine, before moving into Phase 1a first-in-human studies at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital’s Clinical Research Unit.
The team is taking a ‘twin track’ approach to develop a vaccine that produces both antibody and killer T cell responses in order to generate better and longer lasting immunity.
The candidates have been chosen for their safety record, their known beneficial effects when used in combination, and also their potential to be used as vaccines for more than one disease in the future. Importantly, they should also be safe to use during pregnancy.
The research is being led by Professor Neil French and Dr Lance Turtle (University of Liverpool and Royal Liverpool University Hospital), Dr Tom Blanchard (University of Manchester and Royal Liverpool University Hospital) and Professor Miles Carroll (Public Health England).
Professor French, Director of the Centre for Global Vaccine Research at the University of Liverpool and Honorary Consultant in Infectious Diseases at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital said: “Infection research in Liverpool is world leading and we are focused on delivering life changing vaccines and treatments for the most important infectious diseases around the globe.
“Although the current Zika outbreak has slowed, there remains a significant risk of foetal abnormality when pregnant mothers become infected, and the changing climate raises the possibility of major epidemics occurring in previously unaffected parts of the world. A ready to use vaccine would dramatically reduce the threat that we face from Zika.”
Public and Global Health Minister, Steve Brine said: “Britain is a global leader in cutting-edge healthcare research and we should rightly be proud of our scientists and laboratories – this trial has enormous potential to help millions of people.
“Disease transcends lines on a map, so by funding this research we are ensuring British expertise will save and improve lives at home and abroad.”
The work builds upon initial vaccine development research funded through the UK’s Zika Rapid Response Initiative in 2016, which identified the two potential vaccine candidates and immunological studies undertaken at the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at the University of Liverpool.
The funding for this project is part of a wider programme of Official Development Assistance spending by the Department of Health and Social Care that aims to support the development of vaccines and associated technologies against diseases with epidemic potential. The Zika virus is one of 12 priority pathogens, identified by the UK Vaccine Network, that this programme targets.