Amidst the sterile corridors of bustling hospitals and the hum of machines, silent killers lurk: superbugs. These are drug-resistant pathogens that pose a grave threat to patients, especially those with weakened immune systems. According to a study published in The Lancet medical journal, superbugs killed at least an estimated 1.27 million people worldwide in 2019 alone. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 2.8 million antimicrobial-resistant infections each year.
Superbugs are a huge concern because they’re resistant to the antibiotics used during routine surgeries or treatments, like C-sections, cancer care, and joint replacements. Not even the best doctors can do anything when such superbugs grip a vulnerable patient. But while these microbes are incredibly difficult to flush out once they make a foothold, they could be prevented from infecting people in the first place.
A team of researchers led by the University of Southern California (USC) has developed an experimental vaccine with the potential to defend against a plethora of deadly bacteria and fungi found in healthcare settings. The vaccine is designed to fend off not one, not two, but eight different types of superbugs.
“It’s an early warning system. It’s like Homeland Security putting out a terror alert. ‘Everybody, keep your eyes open. Keep an eye out for suspicious packages’,” said senior author Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer at the USC-affiliated Los Angeles General Medical Center.
“You’re alerting the soldiers and tanks of your immune system. The vaccine activates them. ‘Oh my, there’s danger here. I better turn into the Hulk.’ I mean, when you have bad superbugs lurking, that’s when you want the Hulk waiting to pounce rather than Dr. Banner, right?”
A Silent Epidemic
Each year, over 90,000 Americans succumb to infections contracted within the confines of healthcare facilities, leading to staggering medical bills that range between $28 to $45 billion. On any given day, roughly 1 in 31 hospitalized individuals battles at least one such infection. These aren’t just any infections; they are often caused by formidable adversaries like MRSA or Acinetobacter baumannii, which are notoriously challenging to treat.
While traditional vaccines target specific pathogens, this novel approach amplifies the body’s innate defense mechanisms. Instead of producing antibodies, the vaccine supercharges macrophages – immune cells naturally designed to engulf and neutralize bacteria and fungi. This mechanism offers a broader protective shield, encompassing a range of potential invaders.
“This is very different from developing new antibiotics,” said Jun Yan, a PhD student at Keck School of Medicine of USC and the study’s first author. “This is using our own immune system to fight against different superbugs, which is a different approach than everybody else.”
The vaccine’s formulation is elegantly simple, comprising primarily of ingredients already recognized and approved by the FDA. In preliminary tests on mice, this single-dose vaccine demonstrated rapid efficacy, offering protection within a day and maintaining its guard for up to a month. Encouragingly, there’s potential for prolonged defense with subsequent doses.
The main scientists behind this research have coalesced under the banner of ExBaq LLC, a startup aiming to bring this vaccine to the masses. In the meantime, the researchers are seeking guidance from the FDA to design the first clinical trial.
The findings appeared in the journal Science Translational Medicine.