A new vaccine has proven almost completely effective in preventing shingles (disease medical name: herpes zoster), an extremely painful nerve infection which affects a third of Australians; most over the age of 50.
The research, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, shows that the vaccine, HZ/su, is 97 per cent effective over a three-year period, regardless of the age of the person vaccinated.
The vaccine has been developed using a new strategy involving a single viral protein and an immune stimulant that is directed towards white cells, rather than anti-bodies.
The executive director and chief scientist at the Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research in Sydney, Professor Tony Cunningham, has been involved with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in the development of this vaccine strategy for over 20 years which, in part, is based on his discoveries of the key human white cells involved in control of such viruses.
Professor Cunningham says:
It’s an unusual strategy that’s had partial success in the past, for instance with the herpes simplex vaccine. However, our results are extraordinary and really justify this type of approach. It’s the first time that we’ve seen this kind of vaccine strategy really work
Shingles is caused by chicken pox virus which affects over 90 per cent of children. Rather than leaving the body, the virus gets caught up in small clusters of nerve cells near the spine and as immunity to the chicken pox virus wanes with age it reappears as shingles.
The individual lifetime risk of developing shingles is approximately one in three people; however, for individuals aged 85 and over, this risk increases to one in two people.
Over the age of 60 in particular it causes severe pain which may persist for over a year in about 10 to 20 per cent of people which may result in depression and loss of independence in the elderly. It also causes a nasty skin rash and – particularly if it affects the face – can cause problems with vision.
The HZ/su vaccine has been through Phase III clinical trials around the world. The trial was conducted over a period of three years and experienced no drop off in the efficacy over that time.
Further research is required to determine whether the vaccine continues to be effective over a longer term but medical researchers and GlaxoSmithKline (who will develop the vaccine commercially) are hopeful it could one day eliminate the debilitating disease completely.
“This is very exciting – it’s one of those breakthroughs in getting highly efficacious treatments or vaccines that only come along every few years, particularly in this field,” concludes Professor Cunningham.
Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research