New Vaccine Shows Potential Against Staph Infections

By on January 6, 2014

Most of us are familiar with the term “staph infection,” but what some may not know is that Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes staph infections, has become resistant to numerous antibiotics. These bacteria are called MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – and cause approximately 500,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths in the United States each year. This has led many teams of researchers to attempt to develop a viable vaccine that will prevent MRSA from infecting humans. One team of researchers, represented by Patrick Schlievert, believes their vaccine has the greatest chance of being successful.

Several failed attempts by pharmaceutical companies, such as NABI Biopharmaceuticals and Merck, involved developing vaccines that work the same way as vaccines for the flu and pneumonia. These vaccines are made from proteins or carbohydrates found in the cell wall of the bacterium. The proteins and carbohydrates that are typically used to help the bacterium remain hidden from the immune system. As a result, the immune system will be able to recognize the bacterium if it is ever in the body. This method was unsuccessful with Staphylococcus aureus.

Some research has shown that the vaccine for staph infections mentioned above may actually increase the likelihood of developing a staph infection. Five rabbits were vaccinated with a vaccine containing proteins from the cell surface of Staphylococcus aureus. After exposure to a common strain of MRSA, the rabbits died within six hours. Five other rabbits were not vaccinated, and were exposed to the same strain of MRSA. These rabbits all lived for at least four days. This indicates that this type of vaccine may make organisms more likely to contract a staph infection than they would be without vaccination.

Schlievert and his team used a different type of vaccine that showed promising results in rabbits. The researchers used superantigens and cytolysins, proteins produced by the bacterium that contribute to the development of illness, taken from Staphylococcus aureus to create a vaccine. This vaccine was tested on rabbits. One group of 88 rabbits was vaccinated, and another group of 88 rabbits was not. Then all of the rabbits were exposed to the bacteria. After exposure to the bacteria, 86 of the vaccinated rabbits survived, while only 1 of the 88 unvaccinated rabbits survived.

While these results are promising, there are a few drawbacks to this research. One problem is that this research has only been done in rabbits. While Schlievert argues that the rabbit’s immune response to Staphylococcus aureus is quite similar to the immune response of humans, there are still some differences between the two. Schlievert and his team are planning on conducting studies in humans using the vaccine. Another potential problem is that the vaccine might protect against all forms of Staphylococcus aureus. There are inert strains that could actually be beneficial to humans. As Robert Daum, a pediatrician and microbiologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois states, “We don’t want to eliminate all staph. We want to eliminate the nasty ones that cause disease.”

For now, staph infections still shouldn’t be taken lightly, but there is hope and potential for a vaccine against the bacterium that causes staph infections. 

Courtney Walker, Contributor

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