Potential Breakthrough Pneumonia Vaccine Born in Oklahoma Undergoes Trials

KTUL - October 16, 2023 6:02 am

In a groundbreaking development, a potential pneumonia vaccine developed by researchers from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Medicine is undergoing clinical trials.

The pioneering research leading to this vaccine candidate is credited to Dr. Rodney Tweten, a researcher and a George Lynn Cross Professor of Research in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the OU College of Medicine. The vaccine, which targets Streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacteria responsible for pneumonia, has been a result of over three decades of research.

“It took probably 25 years of work on this toxin to figure out how we can make a good vaccine out of it,” said Tweten.

Tweten says pneumonia claims the lives of more than 1 million people every year, particularly affecting the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and children under the age of five, primarily in developing countries.

Dr. Tweten’s work focuses on a specific class of toxins produced by various pathogenic bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae. The vaccine uses a genetically modified, inactive version of the pneumolysin toxin, which is responsible for causing the pneumonia infection. By administering this modified toxin, the vaccine stimulates the human body to produce antibodies that can effectively neutralize the harmful pneumolysin toxin, preventing pneumonia infection.

“That toxin is key to its infection causing pneumonia. If you get rid of that toxin, you get rid of pneumonia,” said Tweten. “We can knock out its ability to kill our cells and we can turn it into a vaccine.”

What sets this vaccine apart from existing options on the market is its potential to protect against a wide range of Streptococcus pneumoniae variants. Current vaccines are carbohydrate-based, relying on the recognition of sugar coatings on the bacteria’s surface. These vaccines are effective against only a limited number of bacterial variants, leaving room for potential infections from other strains. Moreover, young children often fail to mount a robust immune response to these carbohydrate-based vaccines.

Dr. Tweten’s vaccine, on the other hand, leverages the body’s immune response to the pneumolysin toxin, which remains structurally similar to the original pathogen. This approach is believed to stimulate a broad immune response, offering protection against a majority of Streptococcus pneumoniae serotypes.

Besides its potential for greater effectiveness, Tweten’s vaccine also holds the promise of affordability. Manufacturing costs are expected to be lower than for existing pneumonia vaccines, making it an attractive option for developing countries where access to healthcare resources is often limited. Dr. Tweten said the vaccine may be able to provide more use across the medical field if it’s successful.

“We may be able to reengineer these to target other bacteria, tumors, and a variety of other infectious diseases. So that’s just beginning,” said Tweten.

The Phase One clinical trial of this vaccine is currently underway in the United States, with safety, tolerability, and immune response being closely monitored. The study is expected to provide valuable insights, and results are anticipated by the end of the year.

Though there are two more phases of clinical trials to go through, it’s important to note that bringing a new vaccine from the research phase to a product that is accessible to the public may take a while.

“The time from when you initially submit the patent, and the time it becomes a product is typically about 10 years,” said Tweten.


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