A first-of-its-kind nanoparticle vaccine candidate for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has been designed by researchers, which could help reduce infant mortality.

After malaria, RSV is the second most common cause of infant mortality worldwide, responsible for 160,000 deaths globally each year. In the United States, RSV is the leading cause of pneumonia in babies under a year old.

Brooke Fiala, a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Institute for Protein Design and a lead author of the study, explains that creating an effective vaccine for the disease is difficult:

“It has historically been challenging to produce an RSV vaccine that is both safe and effective, but exciting new vaccine design strategies continue to emerge. We hope to move this vaccine candidate into clinical trials soon and to continue producing vaccines for other diseases as well.”

Researchers are therefore turning to nanotechnology. Nanoparticles are known to make vaccines more effective and structure-based vaccine design is key to this. Scientists are now able to repurpose natural nanoparticles to create experimental vaccines for HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases.

The computer-designed nanoparticle vaccine for RSV

The new vaccine’s core is a computer-designed nanoparticle made of different parts shaped like pentagons and triangles. Each nanoparticle is more than ten million times smaller than a poppy seed and the outsides of these nanoparticles were fitted with inert RSV proteins to create the vaccine.

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Using computer- designed protein nanoparticles allows for much more control over important vaccine properties, such as size, stability and the number of antigens presented to the immune system.

Senior author Neil King, assistant professor of biochemistry at the UW School of Medicine said that this technique could aid the creation of new vaccine candidates:

“This is the first of many vaccine candidates we have made using this technology. We believe that computationally designed nanoparticle vaccines will ultimately be simpler to manufacture and more effective than traditional vaccines,” said King. “We will continue to develop this technology so that we and others can make new vaccines better, cheaper, and faster. We are excited to work with our many partners and collaborators to translate our work in the lab into actual vaccines that go out into the world and, hopefully, save lives.”

The vaccine has been effective in eliciting neutralising antibodies against the virus in mice and monkeys, and the researchers hope that it could soon lead to human clinical trials.

By swapping out the proteins along the outside of the nanoparticle, researchers hope to create new vaccines candidates for HIV, malaria and cancer.