A Chinese biotech partnership’s vaccine success raises hopes for prevention of overlooked diseases, including hepatitis E, which claims 70,000 lives annually
Batches of the world’s first vaccine against the hepatitis E virus began rolling out of a Chinese factory last week, promising to stem a disease that every year infects about 20 million people and claims 70,000 lives. The vaccine is being hailed as a victory for an unusual public–private partnership that could set a precedent in China’s burgeoning biotechnology sector, and help to deliver other vaccines for diseases overlooked in the West.
The waterborne hepatitis E virus mostly occurs in developing countries that have poor sanitation, and it is particularly prevalent in east and south Asia. Although most cases cause only mild illness, it can lead to acute liver failure — the mortality rate reaches 4% in some regions and soars to 20% in women who are in the later stages of pregnancy. A severe outbreak of hepatitis E in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China, for example, caused almost 120,000 infections and more than 700 deaths between 1986 and 1988 (see ‘Hidden epidemics’). There is no treatment, and improved sanitation has so far been the most effective way to stem the disease.
The new vaccine, which was approved by China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) in December 2011, could transform that picture. More than a decade ago, researchers at Xiamen University in Fujian province genetically modified a strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli to produce a protein that, when injected into humans, stimulates the body’s immune system against hepatitis E. But preclinical and clinical development began in earnest only in 2000, when the Yangshengtang Group, a company with interests in food and health care, invested 15 million renminbi (US$1.8 million in 2000) to set up a joint biotech laboratory in partnership with the university. The lab was given national status in 2006 by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and relaunched as the National Institute of Diagnostics and Vaccine Development in Infectious Diseases (NIDVD).
The institute aims to unite academia and industry in commercializing new vaccines, particularly for emerging infectious diseases.
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