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Meningitis is a deadly disease that affects 400 people a year in Canada. The disease causes membranes around the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed, leading to permanent brain damage, deafness, or even death. Of those that develop meningitis, one in four die within 48 hours and half of them are younger than five years old. The most common strain of the disease, Meningitis-C, is responsible for 50 per cent of cases.
For three decades, Dr. Harry Jennings, a carbohydrate chemist at the National Research Council and his team, worked to develop an innovative new Meningitis-C vaccine – an accomplishment that will save millions of children's lives around the world.
Molecular model of a Meningitis B vaccine.
When Jennings began his meningitis research in the 1970s, the only vaccine that existed for the disease was not reliable. It did not completely control the disease and required repeated vaccinations. Most disappointingly, it was not effective in infants, a high-risk group for developing meningitis.
This early vaccine was a type of polysaccharide vaccine. Polysaccharides are groups of carbohydrates composed of long chains of simple sugar molecules. While collaborating with an American scientist in the 1970s, Jennings learned that polysaccharide vaccines are not effective in infants, which is one reason why the existing meningitis vaccine did not protect them.
However, infant immune systems do respond very well to proteins. Jennings and his team determined that if they linked the polysaccharide to a protein in order to form what is called a conjugate vaccine, they could effectively trick an infant's immune system into accepting the meningitis vaccine. They did just that by linking the Group C meningococcal polysaccharide to a related protein vaccine against infant tetanus to create a new conjugate vaccine that stimulates the production of meningitis antibodies in infants.
Conjugate vaccines have been developed in NRC's labs to fight meningitis caused by three major strains of Neisseria meningitidis (groups A, B and C). The Meningitis-C vaccine is now marketed worldwide after having been shown to be effective in infants and adults in a vaccination program involving 12 million people in the United Kingdom.
This NRC team's work resulted in the first published patent on a conjugate vaccine and paved the way for other vaccines to be created in the same way. It was a long time before the conjugate meningitis vaccine was available to the public. Jennings encountered many scientific and political obstacles before the vaccine was commercially produced in 1996. But with the same perseverance that propelled him to spend decades researching and developing the vaccine, Jennings' efforts finally paid off.
Thirty years of hard work at NRC resulted in an infant meningitis vaccine that is safe, effective and easily administered with the potential to save millions of lives. Not only will sales of the vaccine benefit the Canadian economy, but preventing the disease by immunizing infants and expectant mothers will also reduce health care cost associated with meningitis.
Jennings and his team continue their efforts to eliminate the entire family of meningococcal diseases by continuing to develop a vaccine against Meningitis-B. They are also studying the possibility of applying the same technology to develop a vaccine to fight cancer.
NRC's Dr. Harry Jennings developed a better meningitis vaccine that has saved the lives of thousands of children around the world.
Important developments in vaccine technology have gone a long way in re-affirming the importance of disease prevention. As well, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria indicates the importance of continuing vaccine research to protect millions of lives.