Tailor-made vaccines for serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis could substantially reduce disease rates, scientists have said.


New research suggests changing the vaccination approach for diseases caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria could also help minimise antibiotic resistance and protect those more vulnerable to infection such as infants and the elderly.

The scientists propose tailor-made vaccines targeting specific bacterial serotypes – groups within a single bacteria species sharing similar structural features – while taking into account different geographical populations and age groups.

Dr Nicholas Croucher, of Imperial College London and one of the study authors, said: “Our research shows that the best vaccine designs strongly depend on the bacterial strains present in the population, which vary considerably between countries.

“The best vaccine designs also depend on the age group being vaccinated. These ideas will be critical for applying lessons learned from introducing vaccines in high-income countries to combating the disease where the burden is highest.”

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S. pneumoniae is usually present in the nasal cavity, where it is normally harmless. But it can cause serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis – known collectively as invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD) – in other parts of the body.

Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Imperial College London and Simon Fraser University in Canada used computer simulations to predict how vaccines could be optimised for specific age groups, geographic regions and communities of bacteria. This approach, the researchers said, helped them identify new vaccine designs that could reduce overall rates of disease.

The study also found that adult disease rates could be reduced by almost 50 per cent by redesigning adult vaccines to complement those administered to infants.

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The results highlight the need for vaccine programmes to be tailored to specific communities of bacteria and to consider vaccination at different ages, the researchers said.

Professor Caroline Colijn, of Simon Fraser University and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, added: “This approach to optimising vaccines will help to address several problems, such as invasive disease among infants or adults and minimising antibiotic resistance in the post vaccine population.

“Such an approach also enables public health policy-makers to assess the likely effectiveness of an existing vaccine for a local population based on genomic surveillance data.”


The findings are published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Reader Q&A: Will the rise of superbugs return us to a world without antibiotics?

Asked by: Dan Swain, Berkshire

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or ‘superbugs’, are certainly a serious problem. It takes 15 years for a new antibiotic to be developed and tested, but just 10 years of widespread use before bacteria resistant to that drug become common.

No new classes of antibiotics have been found since 1984, and drug companies are less interested in looking for new ones because treatments for cancer and heart disease are more lucrative.

But things will never get as bad as they were before the world had antibiotics. Better hygiene and sanitation has vastly reduced the incidence of infectious diseases and helped to contain the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains. In Europe, 400,000 people a year are infected with superbugs, but only 25,000 (6 per cent) of these cases are fatal.

This many deaths still sounds like a lot, but it’s tiny compared to the number that died before we had antibiotics, when half of all deaths were caused by pneumonia, flu, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infection and diphtheria.

The superbug problem is serious and getting worse, but antibiotics still save a huge number of lives. In the future, we may need to move away from antibiotics altogether and use bacteria-killing viruses known as ‘phages’ to target the superbugs.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.