After tackling Covid-19 with AstraZeneca, Oxford's Jenner Institute is hard at work on a different kind of vaccine
The institute behind AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine with Oxford University just got funding to pursue a different kind of vaccine for an infection that’s not quite as pressing, but nevertheless on the rise.
The Jenner Institute was awarded $2 million from CARB-X to create a vaccine candidate for gonorrhea, a bacterial infection that has developed resistance to most antibiotics. The money comes from CARB-X, a global partnership looking to spur the development of new antibacterial drugs. And there’s plenty more where that came from, the initiative announced early Tuesday morning.
The funding is part of a three-stage grant according to Calman MacLennan, a senior clinical fellow who’s leading the project. If the Jenner Institute makes it all the way to the clinic, it’s eligible for up to another $5.3 million.
“What’s particularly good about the CARB-X’s funding is that actually allows us to move through three stages, without having to go back and apply for extra funding,” MacLennan said.
There are currently no approved vaccines for gonorrhea, though cases are on the rise worldwide. The WHO estimates that 78 million people a year are infected, with about 1.14 million cases in the US, just less than half of which involve drug-resistant bacteria. Developing a vaccine against the infection, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility or sterility, is challenging because infection doesn’t necessarily confer protective immunity, MacLennan said. So a vaccine would have to “do better than nature.”
Plus there’s been a lack of commercial incentive. Despite increases in resistance to current antibiotics, Big Pharma has retreated from the risky field, fraught with cheap generics and poor financial returns.
The Jenner Institute’s candidate, dubbed dmGC_0817560 NOMV, consists of blebs, or fluid-filled blisters from the outer surface of gonococcus called native outer membrane vesicles. The idea is to prime the immune system to respond to gonococcus, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea.
The approach has previously been used for meningococcal vaccines. In fact, investigators found that one vaccine used to deal with an outbreak of meningitis caused by Group B meningococcus in New Zealand — which is now part of GSK’s Bexsero — also led to a reduction in gonorrhea cases. That vaccine used vesicles of meningococcus.
“We reasoned that if we’ve got vesicles of gonococcus, that should have a better prospect of protecting against gonorrhea,” MacLennan said.
The institute is currently in the lead optimization stage, with hopes to enter the clinic by 2024.
“It feels like a glacial process compared to Covid vaccine development,” MacLennan said.
Back in August, Intravacc partnered with Therapyx on a similar approach to a microsphere vaccine candidate using encapsulated IL-12 and outer bacterial membrane vesicles from Neisseria gonorrhoeae.
“In some ways you can think of the problem we have with antimicrobial resistance as being a bit of a silent pandemic — one that you know is slowly creeping up on us,” MacLennan said, adding that a gonorrhea vaccine wouldn’t likely be given to everyone in the developed world. At least not yet.
But in places like Africa, where the prevalence among women is 1.9%, gonorrhea is a “huge problem,” he said. “It’s something that really has been neglected.”
Since its launch in 2016, CARB-X has pumped $305.2 million into the early development of new antibiotics and other therapies, vaccines and preventatives. Its goal is to invest up to $480 million in the space by 2022, supporting projects through early phases until they attract their own funding.