Vaccine combats West-Nil-Virus

The increasing spread of the West-Nil-Virus in Europe and the insufficient protection procedures so far demand the development of effective combating strategies. Under coordination of the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, the international consortium is establishing innovative diagnosis and vaccination methods. The aim of the project is to develop a very specific diagnostic procedure that reliably detects the virus as well as a safe and effective vaccination based on innovative technologies. The magnitude and expansion of a WNV pandemic will be resolved and effectively controlled in Europe.

Like the similarly dangerous related viruses that cause yellow and dengue fever, the West-Nil-Virus belongs to the family of flaviviruses. It infects mainly birds, but is also transferred to mammals by mosquitoes. Humans are also infected and, thus, it is relevant for the health of our society. West-Nil fever that is caused by the virus initially induces flu-like symptoms with high fever. About 1 % of patients also have severe neurological disease courses that partially result in death. Older and immunocompromized patients are especially vulnerable.

Due to the growing mobility of humans and animals and enhanced by the climate change, the West-Nil-Virus that was originally endemic to Africa and the Mediterranean region is spreading around the globe. The virus has spread very rapidly in the USA and is also advancing in Europe. However, so far neither reliable diagnostics nor effective vaccines exist that can protect the population. The Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology is coordinating a group project with a total of 9 international partners that is supported by the European Union to face these deficits.

The goal of the international group project is to develop an especially efficient vaccine and an improved system of effectively detecting the pathogen. In addition, a scientific network is being established to standardize collection and testing methods of biological data and to generate a realistic picture of the virus threat.

Diagnosis

A reliable and specific diagnostic system is mandatory to fight infectious diseases. Establishing a definite and concise pathogen detection method is a special challenge in the case of WNV. This is because antibodies that are formed against the virus often cross-react with related viruses (e.g. yellow or dengue fever viruses). Thus, a very specific pathogen detection method has to be developed. The use of recombinant-protein-technology and optimized epitope-mapping-methods takes this into account. The aim is that the developed diagnostics will have a very low error rate and will be reliable, fast, and globally applicable.

Vaccine

Aside from the diagnostics that will be developed to specifically detect the virus, a vaccine against infection is the most important tool to prevent further spread of infectious disease. In the project a vaccine will be developed that is both stable and offers long-term protection. Furthermore, it should have as few side effects as possible. Modern vaccine technology such as DNA-vaccination and subunit-vaccines will be used.

DNA-vaccines have certain gene sequences of the pathogen. After vaccination, patients themselves will produce the antigens coded for in the vaccine and present them to their immune system. A symptom-free infection will be simulated in the host and a corresponding immune response will be induced that permanently protects the person. This vaccine approach combines the advantages of standard vaccination strategies – the efficacy of live vaccines with the safety of the inactivated vaccine. Another advantage of this vaccine technology is its flexible adaptation to different pathogen variants.

Network

Aside from the development of new diagnostics and vaccination procedures, the project will establish a scientific information network. In the future the network will collect and geographically locate all immunological and biological data. Thus, a map develops that shows not only the WNV cases, but also the individual parameters that are involved.

The global data collection is necessary to follow the development of the WNV pandemic and to adapt diagnostics and vaccines to regional differences. The spread of the pathogen can only be successfully controlled in this way.

  • Universität Leipzig, Institut for Virologie
  • Biomedical Primate Research Centre (Niederlande)
  • Padova University, Department of Histology, Microbiology and Medical Biotechnologies (Italien)
  • Zürich University, Institute for Laboratory Animals (Schweiz)
  • Ghent University, Laboratory of Gene Therapy (Belgien)
  • Washington University, Division of Infectious Diseases (USA)
  • Isconova AB (Schweden)
  • Genetic Immunity Kft. (Ungarn)