ARCHIVED - Question and Answer: Dr. Harry Jennings

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March 01, 2003— Ottawa, Ontario

Dr. Harry JenningsNRC scientists produce results. Dr. Harry Jennings' dedication to saving infant lives became a 20-year project resulting in a safe and effective vaccine that protects infants and adults alike against group C meningococcal meningitis. A recent recipient of a prestigious Manning Award, NRC-IBS' Dr. Jennings is the first in a series of interviews with key NRC researchers.

Q: In 1981, Connaught Laboratories encouraged you to file a patent on the coupling technology that forms the basis of the Meningitis C vaccine. Clearly, they recognized you had come up with something unique. Can you describe how you first arrived at the idea for a conjugate approach?

A: In the 1970's we had developed new Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) techniques (used to study the chemical composition of molecules) to determine the structures of bacterial polysaccharides. This work caught the attention of Professor Emil Gotschlich at the Rockefeller University who was the inventor of one of the original polysaccharide vaccines against meningococcal meningitis, and wanted us to use these NMR techniques on the meningococcal polysaccharides.. Through this collaboration collaboration I learned of serious weaknesses in the performance of polysaccharide vaccines. For example, they were not effective in infants, who constituted 50% of all reported cases of bacterial meningitis and, as a result, the vaccines failed to protect them. But, infant's immune systems respond very well to proteins, and we hypothesized that by linking the polysaccharide to a protein to form a conjugate vaccine, we would improve its immune response in infants. Our first patent, based on a superior coupling technology, was readily adaptable to commercial production, acceptable as a human vaccine and, as it turns out, the first patent on a conjugate vaccine ever published.

Q: After your first patent for the Meningitis C vaccine appeared in the early 1980s, a number of others followed. There are now 12 different patent families covering the vaccine. How big is this area? As you go forward, do you perceive many more patents?

A: Our first patent on the group C vaccine has now expired, but another one was issued in 1995. A large number of our licensed patents are concerned with the development of a novel group B meningitis conjugate vaccine. Currently there is no truly effective vaccine against disease caused by this organism, which accounts for 50% of all cases of meningococcal meningitis in developed countries. Group B Streptococcus is a leading cause of neonatal meningitis, and together with Dr. Dennis Kasper of Harvard Medical School, we have also developed a new vaccine, which is now in phase 2 human trials.

Q: When are we likely to see the new Meningitis B vaccine on the market?

A: Currently our vaccine is the most promising candidate for the prevention of group B meningitis, but because of perceived safety problems, its development will be slow. The current estimated time for marketing the vaccine is in 2006.

Q: In addition to your work on the Meningitis vaccines, you have also been studying the possibility of a vaccine for cancer. What do you feel you have learned in your experiences working on the Meningitis C and B vaccines that will help you in this new area?

A: Some cancer cells, such as small cell lung cancer cells, have the same polysaccharide structure on their surfaces as group B meningococci, which is also associated with the metastasis of these cells. We have recently been studying an immunological approach to the prophylaxis of these cancers based on the same vaccine technology that we developed for the prevention of group B meningitis.

Q: Several months ago, Time Magazine announced that vaccines were making a comeback. Time suggested that that all of the "simple tasks" had been accomplished and researchers were now tackling diseases that, previously, had never been considered as treatable using vaccines. What is the future of vaccine research?

A: Conjugate vaccines have been the most important development in the vaccine industry during the last fifteen years. The technology can be applied to any encapsulated pathogen, and successful human conjugate vaccines have also been marketed against disease caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b, and Streptococcus pneumoniae. The success of these vaccines has had a considerable influence on the comeback of vaccine research, and further applications of this technology to other diseases are inevitable. New approaches to vaccine development can also be predicted as our basic knowledge in the genetics of pathogenic organisms improves. In addition the current political climate is conducive to vaccine development, based on the realization that vaccines and disease prevention are, in fact, cost-effective. Problems caused by emerging antibiotic-resistant bacteria also favour continued development of vaccines.

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National Research Council of Canada

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