Research could help search for birth defect vaccine

October 19, 2015

Carolyn Scofield
Phone: 504-247-1443

Researchers at Tulane National Primate Research Center (TNPRC) and Duke University have developed a new model that could bring science one step closer to developing a vaccine against congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV), one of the world’s leading infectious causes of birth defects.

The researchers’ findings appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Almost 5,000 children a year in the U.S. are born with permanent problems resulting from the virus, including deafness, blindness, seizures and cognitive delays, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Scientists working to develop a vaccine against CMV have struggled to find an effective animal model that mimics the way the virus is transmitted in humans.

Until now, researchers had to rely on guinea pigs, the only mammals known to pass CMV onto their fetuses. But Dr. Amitinder Kaur, a professor in the Division of Immunology at the TNPRC and co-senior author Sallie Permar of Duke Medicine discovered rhesus macaques, which more closely resemble humans, can also transmit the virus through the placenta.

Along with establishing a primate model for congenital CMV infection, researchers also learned new information about the importance of a mother’s immune system in protecting her fetus.

“It means that we can now use this model to ask questions about protective immunity against congenital CMV and actually study this disease for which a vaccine is urgently needed,” said Kaur.

The studies continue at Tulane’s primate research center. The next stage of the research will be to determine whether neutralizing antibody responses would be enough to protect against transmission of severe disease, or whether a T-cell vaccine would be a better approach.

“After the rubella vaccine was developed in the 1960s, schools for the deaf and blind had to close their doors because there were far fewer children who had suffered congenital rubella infections and needed the services,” said Permar. ‘That’s the kind of impact a CMV vaccine could have.”

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000