Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics on the Gold Coast has signed a major vaccine license deal with a Chinese company to develop a lifesaving vaccine that raises hope for millions.
All going well, the ‘blockbuster’ vaccine against group A streptoccus (strep A), could prevent millions of deaths and earn over $1 billion annually once fully commercialised.
Strep A is one nasty bacteria – in the words of lead researcher Professor Michael Good, “possibly the biggest killing organism on the planet.”
It causes everything from tonsillitis and strep throat, to skin conditions, deadly rheumatic fever and heart disease and even gruesome and fatal flesh-eating diseases.
“It’s estimated that no other single germ can cause as many different disease manifestations as group A streptoccus, “ says Professor Good.
Through a major license deal, which gives Chinese biopharmaceutical company Olymvax the rights to develop and sell the vaccine in China, while Griffith University retains Australian and global rights, human clinical trails could commence within 12 months and the drug could be widely available in six to eight years.
Joint laboratories are being established on the Gold Coast and at Olymvax’s Chengdu facility where they will scale-up the vaccine development and oversee the Chinese human trials, while providing 500 vials of vaccine for Griffith researchers to simultaneously trial in remote Indigenous communities.
It’s a landmark win-win and represents a major development for the institute and university, and the development of the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct.
Professor Good, who also has a promising malaria vaccine candidate in human clinical trials on the Gold Coast, has had strep A in his sights for more that 25 years.
“I got interested in strep because it has a major impact on our Indigenous population who suffer the highest rates of streptococcal pathology in the world,” he says.
Younger colleague and co-inventor Dr Mehfuz Zaman starting researching strep A in 2008, with the big breakthrough coming 18 months ago when the pair created a technology to deliver, via a simple nasal drop, an antibody that kills strep A in the throat and prevents tonsillitis in mice.
“It’s a needle-free option that we think we can utilize on humans just as well,” Dr Zaman explains of the exciting innovation.
“We can now for the first time induce an immune response that can protect you in the throat. To do that you have to induce anti-bodies in the saliva – it might sound easy to do, but it’s actually not,” adds Good.
“Globally there are over 600 million cases of streptoccoal tonsillitis each year and many of those can go on to very serious deep tissue infections of the body with a high mortality or can lead to rheumatic heart disease which is a very serious condition,” says Good.
While strep A was previously thought to kill half a million people a year, the American Cardiology Association recently reviewed the incidences in developing countries and dramatically revised that figure upwards – by almost three times.
“1.4 million is a scary figure,” says Good, adding that the impact certainly exceeds malaria and possibly tuberculosis (TB) and HIV.
The infections themselves are highly contagious and associated with low socio-economic conditions – poor access to primary health care, crowded living, poor sanitation.
Vaccines offer the advantage over antibiotics of not inducing resistance, with strep A proving resistant to existing drugs in many cases already.
As significant as the scientific breakthrough is, the Chinese commercial arrangement is the real deal, described by Griffith University Vice Chancellor Ian O’Connor as being the way of the future for Australian science.
According to the man who brokered the deal, Institute General Manager Dr Chris Davis, it represents the perfect partnership.
“The Chinese vaccine market is emerging as very strong and with Olymvax we can tap into their expertise in regulatory, clinical and also in manufacture, which couples very nicely with our technical discovery and development expertise,” says Davis.
“We believe that combining the institute’s platform with Olymvax’s capabilities will help us rapidly develop these assets for the Chinese market,”says Olymvax Chairman Shaowen Fan.
It delivers the two necessary ingredients for success – the major financial investment required and the ability to significantly scale up drug development, due to the sheer size of the Chinese market. Researchers and students will also be able to exchange between the two laboratories to build expertise.
“Essentially they’ll take it from what we make on the lab benches and scale it up to a process that is able to be approved by the regulatory authorities as safe for humans,” says Zaman.
“Drug discovery is a huge beast, if I can put it that way – we’ve had very good support so far, including from the National Heart Foundation, but it requires industry investment. It’s a long road but we have a great institute and a very able and willing partner.”
For Good, a fellow of both the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, splitting his quest to beat malaria, with his focus on strep A, has been a labour of love.
“They are both passions of mine – malaria is a more difficult organism to deal with,” he says.
“It is a much more exciting time right now with this development, because we believe we have a vaccine that protects against all strains of streptococcus. I wouldn’t call it a blockbuster yet, but certainly if things work out as we hope then come back in a few years and ask me.”
Good’s malaria vaccine candidate has been undergoing human clinical trials since 2014 that are now in their second stage.
The ‘blockbuster’ cervical cancer vaccine Gardisal was pioneered by Queenslander Professor Ian Fraser, while Institute for Glycomics founder and director Professor Mark von Itzstein, a Griffith undergraduate, co-invented the lucrative world first anti-flu vaccine Relenza in 2006, before establishing the Institute in 2000.
Continuing evidence, according to Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick, of the calibre of science in the state.
“This is groundbreaking, world-leading research happening right here in Queensland and on the Gold Coast – this is research that can change the world.”