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Universities to progress human trials of what could be groundbreaking TB vaccine

25th August 2023

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online

     

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The universities of Walter Sisulu and North-West have announced some astounding results from preclinical trials for a combination vaccine against tuberculosis (TB) and Covid-19, with more trials to follow.

The universities reported an unprecedented 100% protection in vaccinated animals, which marks a significant step forward in the unrelenting battle against TB, one of the world's most devastating diseases.

"TB is not just a local problem. It is the leading cause of death in South Africa and many other countries," explains South African Vaccine Platform for Infectious Diseases project manager and biotech expert Professor Anne Grobler, adding that it is “truly electrifying” to imagine a solution to defeating this insidious disease is close by.

The Walter Sisulu University Medical School, whose research is informed by essential national health priorities, collaborated with the North-West University, a trailblazer in drug development and research, on this project, which was initiated 18 months ago.

The collaborative research was also bolstered by a grant from the Chemical Industries Education & Training Authority.

At the forefront of this multi-purpose vaccine development is Professor Markus Depfenhart, as the inventor of the concept.

Depfenhart, who holds appointments as professor at both the universities, was honoured with a Walter Sisulu University honorary doctorate last year for his pioneering work in vaccine and gene therapy in Africa.

Reflecting on the revolutionary nature of this vaccine, Depfenhart comments that DNA vaccines have incredible potential owing to their stability and adaptability. “By marrying their strengths with the high efficacy of mRNA vaccines, we are breaking new ground. This union brings out the best of both worlds and could herald a pivotal shift, especially for regions like Africa."

The results from three different immunogenicity studies in two animal models led to, and justified, the performance of an effectivity study in an animal model that mimics TB in humans.

The key deliverable of the study, which was carried out at the high-security biosafety laboratory of the preclinical imaging facility of the South African Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure, which is housed at South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, was survival.

Indeed, the study showcased a 100% protection rate for the vaccinated animal subjects, a feat not previously described in literature.

A standout feature of this vaccine is its unique ability to mirror bacterial protein production, potentially bypassing certain human protein modifications. This ensures that the immune system is introduced to the most authentic version of the antigen, essentially acquainting it with the "true enemy".

When confronted with a real infection, the immune system can then respond more swiftly and effectively. This novel approach, developed by Depfenhart, could be groundbreaking and may well explain the vaccine’s notable efficacy against TB.

With such remarkable results, the next step for the universities is to move swiftly into human trials. Preparations for discussions with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority are under way to determine the requisite standards and protocols.

Walter Sisulu University Vice-Chancellor Rushiella Songca adds we are not merely talking about another vaccine, but a beacon of hope.

“Given TB's unyielding onslaught over the years, standing on the precipice of a tangible solution is epoch-making. Through this venture, our scientific community is signalling that no challenge is insurmountable,” she states.

North-West Universtity Deputy Vice-Chancellor Jeffrey Mphahlele concludes the diligence, fervour and ingenuity of this team have been nothing short of astonishing.

“Having managed to keep such a fast-moving initiative under the radar and then to unveil results of this magnitude is a testament to our team's prowess."

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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