Researchers from the University of Bath’s Milner Centre for Evolution are part of a €28 million initiative that will lay the groundwork for the licensing and assessment of future new vaccines for whooping cough (pertussis).

Rise in whooping cough

Despite the availability of effective prophylactic vaccines against pertussis, there has been a rise in the incidence of the disease, with epidemics in Europe, Australia and the US in the last decade. As well as being a particular problem in vulnerable infants, with devastating consequences in developing countries, the incidence of pertussis is also increasing in adolescents and adults, particularly in industrialized countries. Hence, pertussis continues to be a major public health concern worldwide.

The pan-European initiative PERISCOPE sets out to accelerate improvement of prophylactic vaccines and vaccination strategies for pertussis. The project is funded with a total budget of €28m over the next five years by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a joint undertaking of the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). Additionally, PERISCOPE is the first IMI project to receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Accelerating development of new vaccines

“Given the resurgence and changing epidemiology of pertussis in industrialized countries and the persistent low level of vaccination coverage and high infant mortality caused by pertussis in low income countries, PERISCOPE represents a concerted effort aiming to accelerate the development of improved vaccination strategies that ensure solid, long-lasting protection against infection”, says Professor Ronald de Groot from Radboud University Medical Center and coordinator of PERISCOPE.

“This implies, first and foremost, that we need to gain a better understanding of the pathogenesis and underlying mechanisms of the infection to be able to identify novel vaccine candidates. However, it is equally important to rebuild the ecosystem for pertussis research and the technical infrastructure needed in Europe to successfully evaluate those novel candidates.”

PERISCOPE will focus on three major areas: 1) Setting up a comprehensive clinical research programme to study the immune response of individuals of all ages to pertussis infection and vaccination; 2) the establishment of parallel clinical and pre-clinical models of pertussis infection, and 3) the development of a comprehensive battery of state-of-the-art bioassays, to help reveal the markers of an effective and long-lasting immune response to pertussis infection in both clinical and preclinical study subjects. PERISCOPE will also seek to study immunization in pregnancy to gain a better understanding of the impact of maternal antibodies on the infant’s immune responses to pertussis.

Part of a world-leading team

In the frame of this ambitious project, Dr Andrew Preston from the Milner Centre for Evolution and Department of Biology & Biochemistry will lead the fundamental microbiology research within Periscope, provide microbiology reagents and develop novel assays for project partners. Dr Preston and his team are global leaders in the genetics and genomics of Bordetella pertussis.

Dr Preston said: “I’m really excited to be part of this European project, which brings together world-leading clinical, immunological and microbiological expertise on pertussis to tackle this pressing issue, which infects around 16 million people worldwide each year.”

PERISCOPE assembles a multi-national team of leading experts from 22 partnering institutions with long-standing experience in pertussis research, clinical trials, bioinformatics, immunology and public health. The consortium also includes Sanofi Pasteur and GlaxoSmithKline, two of the world’s largest and most experienced vaccine manufacturers, as industrial partners.

Evolutionary science informing clinical research

The Milner Centre for Evolution is a unique cross-faculty research centre bridging biology, health and education, named after Bath alumnus, Dr Jonathan Milner who donated £5 million towards establishing the Centre. Its focus is on studying some of the fundamental evolutionary questions of biology, and using this insight to find new technological and clinical research applications.

The Centre is based in the University's Department of Biology & Biochemistry. 85 per cent of the University’s Biological Sciences research was recently assessed as world-leading or internationally excellent in the recent independently-assessed Research Excellence Framework 2014.