Targeting a deadly childhood winter illness

CLS helps biopharmaceutical company Merck to make a vaccine breakthrough for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a virus that is one of the leading causes of hospitalization in babies.

By Erin Matthews

A black and white photo of a happy baby.

Merck, a multinational biopharmaceutical company, is making progress in the search for a potential preventative agent for a serious childhood respiratory disease, thanks in part to data gathered at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

The incidence of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infection is greatest in winter and can lead to serious lower respiratory tract infections in babies and young children who are at heightened risk of infection. RSV is one of the leading causes of hospitalization in babies less than one year old. 

In the past 50 years there has been a race to create a vaccine that would prevent these infections, however there are still no vaccines available for use. Currently, the only treatment is an antibody called palivizumab. This treatment is only available for high risk infants and requires monthly injections.

Merck scientists have identified a potential passive immunotherapy for infants. A team of scientists have isolated a potent neutralizing human RSV antibody that may be able to stop the infection—work that was made possible by the CLS.

“The dataset that was collected and used to solve the structure in the paper was collected at the CLS,” Hua Su, the crystallographer on the project said. “We have continuous data collection throughout the year because of this and so we are grateful for access to the Canadian Light Source.”

The team was able to isolate antibodies from individuals exposed to the virus. They were then able to identify immune system cells that produce antibodies that could stop the virus from entering the cell and thereby potentially prevent an infection from developing.

In this experiment, one antibody, RB1, showed neutralization of the virus, even better than the current approved treatment.

The group is now working on MK-1654, a version of RB1 that has been altered by the company to potentially enhance its half life in infants and extend its duration of action.

Su said they are now proceeding with clinical trials to evaluate whether MK-1654 can confer protection from this dangerous seasonal illness.

Tang, Aimin, Zhifeng Chen, Kara S. Cox, Hua-Poo Su, Cheryl Callahan, Arthur Fridman, Lan Zhang et al. "A potent broadly neutralizing human RSV antibody targets conserved site IV of the fusion glycoprotein." Nature communications 10, no. 1 (2019): 1-13. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-12137-1.


Media contact:

Sandra Ribeiro
CLS Communications Advisor
Canadian Light Source