Scientists are a step closer to creating a universal vaccine to protect against all strains of the killer bug that causes meningitis.

There are more than 90 strains of the streptococcus pneumoniae bug, which causes meningitis, septicaemia - or blood poisoning - and pneumonia. It kills more than a million young children a year, mostly in developing countries.

In Britain, bacterial meningitis, the most serious form of the illness, affects 3,000 each year and kills 300, while 40,000 people a year suffer from pneumonia caused by the bug.

Current vaccines only protect against a fraction of the strains of the bacterium and are very expensive to manufacture.

But US experts at the Children's Hospital Boston believe they have found the key to a more powerful jab that wards off all versions of the bug. Existing vaccines trick the body into making antibodies against the sugars that coat the bug. But different strains carry different sugars, which means the bug can still outwit these jabs.

The new vaccine instead targets proteins that do not change from strain to strain. It triggers the body to produce "security guard" immune cells that stop the bug from taking hold, the Cell Host & Microbe journal said.

The jab almost completely stopped the bug from gaining a foothold in mice - and tests showed the proteins are also effective in forming the "security guard" cells in humans.

The researchers, led by Dr Richard Malley, will start clinical trials once they perfect the recipe, which they hope will be cheaper than existing jabs.

Dr Malley, who has spent more than a decade trying to develop the vaccine, said: 'Our approach has the advantage of potentially providing protection regardless of the country.'
Posted by Penny Hosie on 17.2.11
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