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Preventing meningococcal disease - Sheffield

Professor Andrew Heath

University of Sheffield

Research magnifying glass image

Capsular polysaccharide vaccine against serogroup B meningococcus.


Meningococcal bacteria are a common cause of meningitis and septicaemia. There are good vaccines to protect people against MenA, C, W and Y but it has been difficult to develop a vaccine against MenB. In 2013 a vaccine against MenB (Bexsero) was licenced for use in Europe and in September 2015 it was introduced into the UK routine immunisation schedule for babies under one year. However, it is not predicted to protect against all MenB bacteria that cause disease. These non-vaccine preventable strains are likely to continue causing death and disability and there is therefore an urgent need to develop vaccines which prevent infection caused by all MenB bacteria.

What the research team did

MenB bacteria have a sugary coat which is identical to a sugar found on human cells when babies are developing. As our immune systems do not react to this sugar it hasn’t been possible to use it in a vaccine.

In this cutting edge research project, Professor Heath and his team aimed to create a vaccine which could use this sugary coat, thereby creating a vaccine which would offer complete protection from MenB.

Initially, the research team joined a protein known to enhance the immune response to the sugary MenB coat. Unfortunately they found that joining the sugar to the protein resulted in changes to the structure of the protein. Changes to a protein’s structure can affect its ability to bind to its targets and make it ineffective.

To overcome this, the team developed a new way of joining the protein and the sugar together. In this new method, two different molecules are used to provide a bridge between the sugar and protein.

Preliminary results showed that this combination could provide some protection against MenB. Further research could reveal whether the immunity is long-lasting and whether it has any adverse effects on the individual.

Summary and impact of results

The development of a vaccine which protects against some strains of MenB is a huge breakthrough in the fight against this disease, but for the UK to be completely protected we need to continue investing in innovative, cutting edge research. Professor Heath and his team have contributed greatly to our understanding of potential vaccine technology, and this knowledge will help the research community move one step closer to completely effective protection against MenB.

More information

If you would like more information about this project, or our research in general, please contact research@meningitisnow.org.

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