Research published in Science Translational Medicine and shared by the University of Southern California in October 2023 demonstrates the quick and effective results triggered by a protein-free vaccine against “diverse antimicrobial-resistant, nosocomial pathogens”. These infections, associated with health care settings, are known as “superbugs”. Recent data suggest that the vaccine is a “promising strategy” to tackle them.  

Superbugs strike 

The CDC estimates that on any given day roughly 1 in 31 hospital patients has at least one health care-associated infection. Health care-acquired infections kill over 90,000 people in the US and present health care costs of between $28 billion and $45 billion. Many of these infections are caused by “superbugs” like MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or Acinetobacter baumannii. 

These infections are spread through contaminated surfaces or equipment, or through person-to-person, through contaminated hands for example. Patients in intensive care units are most at risk. There are no approved vaccines to prevent the most serious antibiotic-resistant infections. However, a ‘traditional’ vaccine might not be the solution, suggests Dr Brian Luna from the Keck School of Medicine at USC.  

“Even if there were such vaccines, multiple vaccines would have to be deployed simultaneously to protect against the full slate of antibiotic-resistant microbes that cause health care-acquired infections.”  
How is this vaccine different? 

The vaccine comprises just three ingredients, two of which have already been used in FDA-approved vaccines. The third is a “tiny piece” from the surface of a fungus commonly found on human skin. It has a different modus operandi to the vaccines that we are familiar with. Instead of directing the immune system to respond to a particular pathogen, it encourages the body’s “pre-existing supply” of “pathogen-gobbling” immune cells, or macrophages. These are then able to “quickly neutralise incoming invaders”.  

Doctoral student Jun Yan believes this approach is useful because it is “very different from developing new antibiotics”.  

“This is using our own immune system to fight against different superbugs.” 

Dr Brad Spellberg, Chief Medical Officer at USC-affiliated Los Angeles General Medical Centre, described the process as an “early warning system” akin to “Homeland Security putting out a terror alert”. The vaccine alerts “the soldiers and tanks of your immune system” to the danger, triggering a Hulk-like response! 

“I mean, when you have bad superbugs lurking, that’s when you want the Hulk waiting to pounce rather than Dr Banner, right?” 

The vaccine has been tested in two labs. It gets to work within 24 hours and lasts for up to 28 days. A second dose restored efficacy, reports the latest paper. The macrophage numbers increased “dramatically” and survival time improved.  

ExBaq and funding 

Members of the USC team working on the vaccine launched a startup called ExBaq to develop the vaccine. ExBaq received almost $1 million from NIAID to speed up their progress. They are in discussions with “potential large partners” such as AstraZeneca, who might be able to support the vaccine into clinical trials. They look forward to receiving FDA guidance on an appropriate clinical trial design.  

Professor Ishwar K Puri, senior vice president of research and innovation at USC, is “pleased and proud” of the support that the USC Stevens Centre was able to provide to the experimental vaccine. 

“The pandemic stimulated unprecedented innovation in vaccine development, where federal funding and university-industry partnerships were game changers for translating promising discoveries from academic labs for the good of all.”  

Could this vaccine transform infection control in healthcare settings?  

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