CMV vaccine could protect newborns, immune-suppressed patients

February 27, 2013 | by nlindsey

Despite its rather daunting name, cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is harmless in most cases. But, for people whose immune systems are weakened, such as cancer patients and transplant patients, the virus can flare up and cause life-threatening complications.

City of Hope researchers are developing a vaccine to stop CMV. It could help protect cancer and transplant patients from the virus. (Photo credit: Thinkstock) City of Hope researchers are developing a vaccine to stop CMV. It could help protect cancer and transplant patients from the virus. (Photo credit: Thinkstock)

For pregnant women who have not developed immunity to CMV, the virus can present a severe threat to their unborn children.

“These women are at high risk of transmitting the virus to the fetus if they are infected with CMV during pregnancy, which often leads to congenital developmental disabilities in newborns,” said Felix Wussow, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in City of Hope’s Division of Translational Vaccine Research.

The development of a CMV vaccine has been ranked at the highest priority by the Institute of Medicine; however a licensed vaccine is not yet available, he added.

One of every 150 children is born with congenital CMV infection and one of every five of those children develops permanent health issues as a result, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wussow’s current work primarily focuses on developing a vaccine for young women of childbearing age who have no immunity to CMV.  He is working to develop a vaccine to induce an antibody response to CMV, thereby protecting their babies.

He notes that the vaccine could be turned to help other patients, too.

“CMV infection can also lead to severe complications in immunocompromised individuals such as AIDS patients or in transplant or cancer patients undergoing immunosuppressive therapy,” he said. “These patients may also benefit from our vaccine.”

The vaccine strategy uses a virus called modified vaccinia Ankara, or MVA, that contains five key genes from CMV. The five genes carry the plans for producing a protein complex called UL128C, which consists of five proteins found on the surface of CMV.

The researchers’ plan is to inject MVA into patients where it will produce UL128C. The patient’s bodies will recognize UL128C proteins as foreign and develop antibodies to them. If these patients then encounter CMV, the antibodies will recognized the UL128C proteins on the surface of the virus and prevent CMV from infecting their cells.

The team has shown the vaccine works very well in lab models, according to Wussow. If the results are as good in humans, “our vaccine strategy may reduce the risk of CMV infection of the mother and, consequently, congenital infection of the fetus.”

City of Hope is the only organization that has developed a CMV vaccine based on UL128C, he said.

Wussow recently received the 2012 Award for Innovation in CMV Vaccine Research from the CMV Foundation. The award is only the second ever bestowed by the foundation.

“It’s a great honor to receive the award and I’m very happy the work is being recognized,” Wussow said.

City of Hope's Darrin Joy contributed to this article.

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