HCVAX is a European joint project that reaches out to develop a vaccine against hepatitis C based on nanotechnology. The German Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung, HZI) in Braunschweig and its department "Vaccinology and Applied Microbiology" is now a part of the transnational consortium with researchers from Germany, France and Switzerland.
More than 170 million people are infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) worldwide. Also in Europe this form of hepatitis is a big problem with three per cent of the population affected. The virus is transmitted in operations such as transplantations or by the re-use of syringes for drug usage. Anti-viral treatments are very expensive, have serious side effects and are only effective for some patients. Most of the patients carry the infection for the rest of their lives, with the threat of later developing liver cirrhosis and cancer. Certainly, the most effective way to combat hepatitis C would be a vaccine against the virus - but to date no efficacious vaccine exists.
"We will pursue a completely new approach to develop a HCV vaccine," says Prof. Carlos A. Guzmán, head of the Vaccinology Department at the HZI. With the help of innovative, biocompatible nanogels part of the genetic information of the virus is brought into the body by so-called "RNA replicons". The synthetic nanogels have a diameter of only a few nanometres and are composed of a biopolymer matrix. Immune cells will take up the nanogels with the genetic information and will produce harmless components of HCV. The immune cell then responds to those foreign structures and will generate memory cells: with this, the vaccination would be successful and from then on one would be protected against an infection with pathogen HCV.
By using novel drug amplifiers, so-called adjuvants, the immune response shall be more efficient and targeted. "The HZI has a long-standing expertise in this field. We will incorporate this knowledge into the project to develop more effective vaccines," says Guzmán. "We want to identify those adjuvants that are most eligible for a use in the nanogel composition. The targeted transport to certain defence cells shall guarantee an optimal immune response."
To exclude side effects, potential vaccine candidates have to be tested in several systems. Promising structures will then be selected for further clinical development.
The consortium consists of two companies, three academic institutions and one clinic. They combine their expertise on the field of nanotechnology, biochemistry, immunology, vaccine development and clinical research. "Beyond that we expect that these novel vaccination strategies can be expanded onto the clinical management of other diseases," says Guzmán.
Funding is granted for the next three years from the "EuroNanoMed Joint Transnational Initiative" of the European Union. The German Ministry for Research and Education is funding the project in Germany.
Federal Department of Economic Affairs (Eidgenössisches Volkswirtschaftsdepartement), Mittelhäusern, Switzerland (coordinator)
Medipol SA, Lausanne, Switzerland
Institut Pasteur, Paris, France
Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung GmbH), Braunschweig, Germany
EDI GmbH, Reutlingen, Germany
Hôpital Cochin, Paris, France