Pitt’s MERS Vaccine Shows Initial Success

by Daniel Sokolowski

While reports of the recent Ebola outbreak continue to pervade newspapers’ front pages and late night news shows, another equally frightening disease—Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)—continues to menace the international community. To date, there have been about 837 confirmed cases of patients around the world infected with MERS; 291 of these have resulted in death.

MERS is caused by a microbe aptly named the MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) due to its morphological resemblance to a Corona’s bottle cap. Disease transmission is not entirely known; however, healthy individuals can contract the disease from being in close contact with infected persons or camels, a commonly used mode of transportation in parts of the Middle East.

The illness is characterized by a spectrum of symptoms—fever, coughing fits, shortness of breath, diarrhea, vomiting, pneumonia, respiratory failure and kidney failure. Symptoms are often exacerbated by other illnesses and medical conditions. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 30 percent of MERS cases are fatal.

While the outbreak is mostly confined to countries within or near the Arabian Peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran, several cases have been reported in France, Greece, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States. Modern airline travel is most likely the cause of the disease’s spread.

Dr. Andrea Gambotto, Associate Professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Surgery, is one of many medical scientists working to end the spread of this deadly illness. Gambotto and his fellow researchers are currently developing a MERS vaccine that will inoculate camels, carriers of the MERS virus.

The vaccine works by using harmless virus segments that mimic the protein that allows the MERS coronavirus to invade healthy cells and cause illness. An infected subject’s immune system detects the protein and produces antibodies that specifically target the MERS virus. These new antibodies are then capable of blocking the virus from invading and spreading to healthy cells. Additionally, the antibodies trigger an immune response summoning white blood cells to “consume” and eradicate the pathogen.

Gambotto first infected mice with these protein mimics, followed by an injection of the active, pathogenic MERS virus. The trial was successful; every mouse was immune. Gambotto and his group then tested their vaccination method on samples from camels. Sure enough, each sample successfully produced immunity-granting antibodies.

Similar to the Salk polio vaccine, also developed at the University of Pittsburgh, the results of this experiment offer a glimmer of hope for the eventual eradication of a terrible virus. Gambotto’s recent publication on the vaccine estimates that implementation of the vaccine will cause a 20 percent decline in infection rates among humans. A promising beginning to saving hundreds of humans—and camels—lives.