Pursuing an Improved Whooping Cough Vaccine

In his native India, the disease Rajendar Deora, PhD, has spent 15 years studying was known as ‘black cough’. Now he and his laboratory team are working to stem a rise in the United States and worldwide in this potentially fatal disease, known in the West as whooping cough.

Deora, an associate professor of microbiology & immunology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, is working with a protein called BcfA, and has a patent pending in hopes of developing a new vaccine to generate a more effective immune response to Bordetella pertussis in humans and Bordetella bronchiseptica in animals.

With the right partners, Deora said, a whooping cough vaccine could be developed that is as effective as the original DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine introduced in the 1940s. DTP was phased out in the 1990s after thousands of parents raised concerns about the vaccine’s side effects; DTP contains whole pertussis bacteria.

The replacement vaccine that was developed, DTaP, contains only purified pieces of the Bordetella pertussis organism, making it an “acellular” vaccine.

This acellular vaccine, however, has been discovered to be less effective, which has led to a steep increase in cases of whooping cough, a disease that had been all but wiped out. In the U.S., there were about 1,000 cases of whooping cough recorded in 1976, the lowest number reported. Data are not complete yet, but it appears there were as many as 50,000 cases of whooping cough in the U.S. in 2012.

“The protein we have identified helps to generate antibodies that would allow it to clear out the bacteria,” said Deora. “It may also allow the immune response of the acellular pertussis vaccine to be a more effective response.”

Drive to Develop the Whooping Cough Vaccine

Deora’s laboratory has made two key discoveries. First, the team studied properties of the BcfA protein and broke down how it contributed to the survival of bacteria in the respiratory system of a mouse.

When mice were immunized with the protein and then challenged with the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria, the researchers learned the protein protected against the bacteria. Later they learned that humans infected with Bordetella pertussis made antibodies against this protein. Currently, they are examining if this protein could provide protection against humans from the bacteria as well.

In the animal world, the Bordetella vaccine now in use is a whole cell vaccine. Deora said his laboratory’s work shows promise for being able to develop a safer, acellular version of the vaccine commonly received by dogs to prevent ‘kennel cough’.

Industry Partnerships for Wake Forest’s Whooping Cough Vaccine

“One of the highlights of this whole pattern of innovation here is that we’ve already been able to make contacts with industry,” Deora said. The international pharmaceutical manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim is going to help develop ways to produce the protein for vaccination of dogs against Bordetella bronchiseptica.

Next up will be efforts to find a partner in developing a better version of the current acellular human pertussis vaccine that could include the protein.

Interested investors and potential partners can contact Wake Forest Innovations at innovation@wakehealth.edu to start the conversation.

Watch an interview with Dr. Deora with Fox 8 News.

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