Professor James Paton
University of Adelaide
27 April 2018

“Pneumococcus is the biggest bacterial killer on the planet. It’s the most common cause of pneumonia, which is responsible for about 20 per cent of deaths from all causes in children under 5 years. Globally, pneumococcus accounts for about 2 million deaths a year.”

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Professor James Paton and his team are developing a new type of pneumococcal vaccine that aims to give complete coverage against this devastating bacterial infection. He has dedicated his career to understanding bacterial infectious diseases, such as those caused by the pneumococcus, in order to develop improved vaccines and antimicrobial drugs.

Conducting his research at the University of Adelaide, Professor Paton is developing a simple whole-cell pneumococcal vaccine. This is expected to reduce infection rates for all pneumococcal strains, as well as the cost of the vaccine.

‘For more years than I care to count, my research has been focused on developing vaccines based on components of the pneumococcus which don’t vary from strain to strain, so that you can have a single formulation which protects against all strains,’ Professor Paton explained.

‘The problem with the existing pneumococcal vaccine is that it targets the outside coat of complex carbohydrates—of which there are 98 structurally distinct types. The current vaccine costs about $150 a dose and only covers 13 types.'

‘What we have done is to remove this coat to expose all the surface proteins that are used to interact with the human cells. The body creates an immune response to these surface proteins if previously exposed or vaccinated.’

Having received an NHMRC Program Grant to conduct the basic research, Professor Paton and his team have now received an NHMRC Development Grant to better understand how the vaccine provides protection and to test every batch to ensure it is working properly.

‘The target is for the vaccine to be produced at a low-cost mass scale in three years’ he said.

The aim of the Development Grant is to bridge that gap between the pure laboratory research and a space where you expect the corporate sector to take full responsibility for final clinical safety, immunogenicity and efficacy trials.

‘It would be a career well-spent to get a vaccine into the field which would have such significant impact.’

Professor Paton said his fascination with bacterial diseases, such as pneumococcus, is founded in history.

‘If you look at human history there have only been two occasions where the population of humans have decreased. The first was in the 14th century when you had the bubonic plague – the Black Death – which wiped out almost half the population of Europe. The other time was straight after WW1 with the Spanish flu pandemic,’ he explained.

Revised numbers show over 100 million deaths during that pandemic. It is thought that more than half of those deaths were caused by bacterial secondary infections, principally pneumococcus.


Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: University of Adelaide