Winning the fight against influenza

Annual influenza epidemics and episodic pandemics continue to cause widespread illness and mortality. The World Health Organization estimates that annual influenza epidemics cause around 3–5 million cases of severe illness and up to 650,000 deaths worldwide. Seasonal influenza vaccination still remains the best strategy to prevent infection, but the vaccines that are available now offer a very limited breadth of protection. Human broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) that bind to the hemagglutinin (HA) stem region provide hope for a universal vaccine (Figure 1a)1,2. Binding of these bnAbs prevents the pH-induced conformational changes that are required for viral fusion in the endosomal compartments of target cells in the respiratory tract and, hence, viral entry in our cells.

>Read more on the SSRL at SLAC website

Image: Complex of Influenza virus HA with (a) Fab CR6261, (b) llama single domain antibody SD36, and (c) JNJ4796.

Targeting bacteria that cause meningitis and sepsis

The work provides molecular-level information about how the antibody confers broad immunity against a variable target and suggests strategies for further improvement of available vaccines.

Our central nervous systems (brain and spinal cord) are surrounded by three membranes called “meninges.” Meningitis is caused by the swelling of these membranes, resulting in headache, fever, and neck stiffness. Most cases of meningitis in the United States are the result of viral infections and are relatively mild. However, meningitis caused by bacterial infection, if left untreated, can be deadly or lead to serious complications, including hearing loss and neurologic damage.

The bacterium responsible for meningitis (Neisseria meningitidis) can also infect the bloodstream, causing another life-threatening condition known as sepsis. N. meningitidis is spread through close contact (coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact (e.g. in dorm rooms or military barracks). In this work, researchers were interested in understanding how humans develop immunity to bacterial meningitis and sepsis, collectively known as meningococcal disease, by vaccination with a new protein-based vaccine.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: The work provides molecular-level information about how the antibody confers broad immunity against a variable target and suggests strategies for further improvement of available vaccines.

Structures reveal new target for malaria vaccine

The discovery paves the way for the development of a more effective and practical human vaccine for malaria, a disease responsible for half a million deaths worldwide each year.

Malaria kills about 445,000 people a year, mostly young children in sub-Saharan Africa, and sickens more than 200 million. It’s caused by a parasite, Plasmodium falciparum (Pf), and is spread to humans through the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito.

The parasite’s complex life cycle and rapid mutations have long challenged vaccine developers. Only one experimental vaccine, known as RTS,S, has progressed to a Phase 3 clinical trial (testing on large groups of people for efficacy and safety). To elicit an immune response, this vaccine uses a fragment of circumsporozoite protein (CSP), which covers the malaria parasite in its native conformation. However, the trial results showed that RTS,S is only moderately effective, protecting about one-third of the young children who received it over a period of four years.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website.

Image (a) Left: Surface representation of CIS43 (light chain in tan and heavy chain in light blue), with peptide 21 shown as sticks (purple). Right: A 90° rotation of the representation. See entire image here.

Respiratory virus study points to likely vaccine target

Fighting malaria with X-rays

Today 25 April, is World Malaria Day.

Considered as one of humanity’s oldest life-threatening diseases, nearly half the world population is at risk, with 216 million people affected in 91 countries worldwide in 2016. Malaria causes 445 000 deaths every year, mainly among children. The ESRF has been involved in research into Malaria since 2005, with different techniques being used in the quest to find ways to prevent or cure the disease.

Malaria in humans is caused by Plasmodium parasites, the greatest threat coming from two species: P. falciparum and P. vivax. The parasites are introduced through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. They travel to the liver where they multiply, producing thousands of new parasites. These enter the blood stream and invade red blood cells, where they feed on hemoglobin (Hgb) in order to grow and multiply. After creating up to 20 new parasites, the red blood cells burst, releasing daughter parasites ready for new invasions. This life cycle leads to an exponential growth of infected red blood cells that may cause the death of the human host.

The research carried out over the years at the ESRF has aimed to identify mechanisms critical for the parasite’s survival in the hope of providing an intelligent basis for the development of drugs to stop the parasite’s multiplication and spread.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Inside the experimental hutch of the ESRF’s ID16A nano-analysis beamlin.
Credit: Pierre Jayet

The search for an Ebola vaccine

Researchers expertly solved the crystal structures of drugs bound to the outer coating of the Ebola virus to pinpoint the regions that are essential for inhibitory activity.

Ebola is a viral disease that is highly infectious and associated with a high risk of death. It first arose in 1976, from which point it was associated with dozens of small-scale outbreaks; however, in 2013 Ebola was responsible for a huge epidemic in West Africa. Emergency was declared and over 11,000 people lost their lives to the virus. Despite this horrific state of affairs, Ebola still remains an untreatable disease and there is no vaccine to prevent infection.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website


Crystallographers identify 1,000 protein structures

The Canadian Light Source is celebrating two milestones reached by scientists who have conducted research at the national facility at the University of Saskatchewan.

Scientists have solved 1,000 protein structures using data collected at CLS’s CMCF beamlines. These have been added to the Protein Data Bank – a collection of structures solved by researchers globally. Researchers have also published 500 scientific papers based on their work using the crystallography beamlines.

Proteins are the building blocks of life and are described as the body’s workhorses. The body is made of trillions of cells. Cells produce proteins, which do the work of breaking down food, sending messages to other cells, and fighting bacteria, viruses and parasites. The discoveries at the CLS range from how the malaria parasite invades red blood cells to why superbugs are resistant to certain antibiotics and how parkin protein mutations result in some types of Parkinson’s disease. Understanding how these and other such proteins work can potentially save millions of lives.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: PDB ID: 6B0S


World Polio Day

Are we nearing the end of the war on polio?

There was a time when the word itself was enough to strike fear into the hearts of people around the world. Polio: a highly infectious virus that could shatter young lives in the blink of an eye. On the 24th of October, we mark World Polio Day, and this is something worth celebrating. Because whilst the story isn’t over yet, it may well be nearing its end.

Polio has been around since before records began, but it wasn’t until the early-twentieth century that epidemics began to sweep through communities in Europe and America, affecting many thousands of children and families.

It’s hard to underestimate the terror once caused by polio. At its height in the 1950s, parents routinely lived in fear of their children becoming quarantined, paralysed or even worse. It was a dark time in medical history but, despite this, polio really is a success story for modern science.

Growing a better polio vaccine

Researchers use plants as factories to produce a safer polio vaccine

Successful vaccination campaigns have reduced the number of polio cases by over 99% in the last several decades. However, producing the vaccines entails maintaining a large stock of poliovirus, raising the risk that the disease may accidentally be reintroduced.
Outbreaks can also occur due to mutation of the weakened poliovirus used in the oral vaccine. In addition, the oral vaccine has to be stored at cold temperatures. To address these shortcomings, an international team of researchers across the UK has engineered plants that produce virus-like particles derived from poliovirus, which can serve as a vaccine.
They report the success of this approach in a paper appearing in Nature Communications. The team confirmed the structure of the virus-like particles by cryo-electron microscopy at Diamond Light Source’s Electron Bio-Imaging Centre (eBIC) and showed that the particles effectively protected mice from infection with poliovirus. This proof-of-principle study demonstrates that a safe, effective polio vaccine can be produced in plants and raises the possibility of using the same approach to tackle other viruses.

From Community to Molecule – on Track Towards a Zika Vaccine

A potent new weapon against the Zika virus in the blood of people who have been infected by it.

A research team based at The Rockefeller University has identified a potent new weapon against the Zika virus in the blood of people who have been infected by it. This discovery could lead to new ways of fighting the disease. Detailed examination of the interaction between the virus and antibodies derived from human subjects in Brazil and Mexico, including crystallographic studies performed at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsourse (SSRL), have revealed a new potential strategy for developing a vaccine towards this virus.

Through collaborators working in Pau da Lima, Brazil, and Santa Maria Mixtequilla, Mexico, the research team obtained blood samples from more than 400 people, collected shortly after Zika was circulating.

In these samples, antibodies that block the virus from initiating an infection were found. Interestingly, the antibodies appeared to have been initially generated in response to an earlier infection by a related virus (DENV1) that causes dengue fever. It appears that, much like a vaccine, the DENV1 virus can prime the immune system to respond to Zika.