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Meningitis vaccine study reaches target of 600 participants

A total of 607 students participated in a public health study conducted by University researchers from April 17-23. The study aimed to measure the impact of the meningococcal B vaccination campaign.

The study, funded by the Program on U.S. Health Policy in the Center for Health and Wellbeing at the Wilson School, will evaluate for the first time the Bexsero vaccine’s performance in an outbreak setting. While the vaccine proved experimentally effective in vitro in a lab, the study will reveal how effective the vaccine proved to be for University students.

Nicole Basta, associate research scholar with the ecology and evolutionary biology department and the principal investigator in the research, explained that the researchers were looking to understand how well students have responded to the vaccination campaign, particularly their immune response against the outbreak strain that occurred at the University.

Basta focuses on infectious disease epidemiology and has previously specialized in meningococcal disease.

“We’ll be using the outbreak bacteria to develop a new assay and look at the immune response against that strain,” Basta said.

The study is intended to examine whether the vaccination helped develop specific antibodies in the blood serum of students, explained Adel Mahmoud, professor in molecular biology and the Wilson School and one of the collaborators for the study. Mahmoud defined an antibody as a molecule that the human body makes when it is immunized by any vaccine.

Mahmoud was the previous president of Merck Vaccines, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical company Merck.

“The study that was designed involves testing the serum for antibodies,” Mahmoud said. “Here, we are looking specifically for antibodies against the outbreak strain of that bacteria.”

Other researchers involved in this study were Bryan Grenfell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and in the Wilson School and Alexander Ploss, assistant professor of molecular biology. Robin Izzo of Environmental Health and Safety and Peter Johnsen of University Health Services, who were responsible for helping coordinate the vaccination campaigns, played advisory roles.

Basta said that she began forming the idea for the study after the first round of vaccination last December, adding that the University’s Institutional Review Board officially approved the study after the second vaccination campaign in February.

“I think it’s just a unique opportunity for students to participate in this research question which could have a big public health impact in the future,” Basta said. “This is the first time we have used this vaccine to control an outbreak so the more we can learn about it, the better it will be to control future outbreaks.”

Students who were willing to participate in the research were asked to fill out a brief questionnaire about their experiences with the vaccine and provide approximately four teaspoons worth of blood for sampling experiments. They received a $20 Paw Points gift card in return.

Marisa Chow ’17, one of the students who participated in the study, said she was enthusiastic to partake in the study in return for a handsome reward.

“My motivation for going to this study is first the Paw Points,” Chow said. “Also drawing blood has never affected me, so if I can help out with the study, that would be really cool.”

The goal for the student participation was to enroll about 600 students in the study, according to Basta. Since more than that number enrolled, the researchers have enough data to proceed with the study. 

Results are expected to be available in nine to 12 months.

Rino Rappuoli, the developer of the meningitis vaccine and global head of vaccines research for Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, said during a lecture on Thursday that he was grateful to the University for sponsoring the research and explained that this could add a greater depth to the understanding of Bexsero.

Representatives from Novartis did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Johnsen deferred comments to Basta.

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