Large-scale Research Initiative Accelerates Development of Novel Pertussis Vaccine


A research team of 22 researchers from 11 countries investigating means to defeat pertussis, or whooping cough, has received €28 million funding for creating a novel vaccine. Participants from Finland include a team of researchers from the University of Turku, who explore the resistance created by the vaccine and the immunity caused by pertussis.

​Children cannot be given the vaccine until the age of 2–3 months. For people without vaccination, pertussis can be lethal.

​The PERISCOPE research team aims at creating a third generation vaccine. Work is distributed into three categories. The researchers study, with both patient and laboratory tests, the immune response of individuals of all ages to pertussis vaccination, establish parallel clinical and pre-clinical models of pertussis infection, and explore with bioassays how effective and long-lasting the vaccine's immune response to pertussis infection is.

The University of Turku receives €1.5 million of the €28 million grant spread over five years. Professors Qiushui He and Jussi Mertsola lead the research that investigates particularly the responses to the vaccine.
– We study the immune response to the vaccination and go through all the cases of pertussis infection in Finland, says Mertsola.
According to Mertsola, this research project starts off from the very basics. The new vaccine is created with the means of modern gene technology. In addition to the vaccine, the researcher team aims at creating a new vaccination strategy.
The €28 million grant from Innovative Medicine Initiative (IMI) is spread over five years. Two large vaccine manufacturers are also involved in the project. PERISCOPE is the first IMI project that has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The share of the foundation covers €7 million of the total funding.

Finland Has Lowest Incidence in Europe

There has been a rise in the incidence of pertussis in the past years, both in industrialised and developing countries. In industrialised countries, the incidence is increasing due to the previous years' growing anti-vaccination trend and the ability of the pertussis causing bacteria to transform. According to Mertsola, pertussis is re-establishing itself.
The situation with pertussis in Finland is the best in Europe due to active vaccination.
– The bacteria causing pertussis transforms, thus the old vaccines might no longer work. In Finland, children receive a booster vaccination before school age, at 14 and later in the army. This has prevented pertussis from spreading in Finland and because of this, our situation is the best in Europe, says Mertsola.
The last pertussis epidemic in Finland was in 2004 when 1600 people got sick. Last year, 165 were diagnosed with pertussis. The disease is not always diagnosed as pertussis, since due to vaccination, it is not rough for adults but more like a long-lasting cough. The vaccine can be given to children aged 2–3 months, and for younger children the decease can be lethal. For example, in 2012, 14 children died of pertussis in England.
– In order for us to recognise the new vaccine candidates, we must understand both the pathogen and the infection mechanism better. Equally important is to build comprehensive pertussis research and a technical infrastructure to Europe for evaluating these new vaccine candidates, notes PERISCOPE Coordinator Professor Ronald de Groot.

Co-operation between University and Hospital the Strength in Turku

Pertussis research in Turku is of world's top quality. Already in the early 1990s, Professors Matti Viljanen, Qiushui He and Jussi Mertsola created PCR diagnostics which was put into operation nationwide in Finland.
Qiushui He and Mertsola run the EUpertstrain network founded in 2005. The network includes 11 pertussis laboratories from European countries. In collaboration, they assess the changes in the bacteria that causes pertussis, the effects of the vaccines and disease cases. From 2009 onwards, EUpert-labnet has developed the laboratory based follow-up of pertussis throughout Europe. These projects have been granted altogether €1 million in Turku.
– Turku's unquestionable strength is the excellent co-operation between the University and the University Hospital, says Mertsola.
Text: Erja Hyytiäinen
Translation: Saara Yli-Kauhaluoma
Created 09.08.2016 | Updated 02.09.2016