Newly developed antibodies could prevent whooping cough

Ellie Breed

Medical researchers from the University have partnered with Synthetic Biologics Inc. to engineer two antibodies that could potentially treat and prevent pertussis in the developing world.

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a bacterial infection of the lungs responsible for the deaths of approximately 200,000 children every year, according to Michael Kaleko, scientific director at Synthetic Biologics Inc. Preclinical testing conducted on animals indicated the antibodies worked as both a preventive agent and a treatment method. With further development, the antibodies could help newborns develop immunity, according to Jennifer Maynard, associate professor of chemical engineering.

“Most of the babies who get sick haven’t been immunized, so we hope to provide the immunity that they are lacking,” Maynard said in a press release. “If we can get our antibodies to these high-risk infants, we could potentially prevent the infection from occurring in the first place.”

There is currently a vaccine to prevent pertussis, but this can only be administered after an infant is two months old. These newly developed antibodies could potentially be used in developing countries with limited health care at the moment a child is born, according to Kaleko.

“Some children only see a doctor once in their lives: the day that they are born,” Kaleko said. “We believe that if a child that is born in an endemic area were to receive an intramuscular injection of our antibodies upon birth, it would provide protection for several months. That first few months is the time frame in which the infants are at highest risk for death.”

Along with their role as a prophylactic, the antibodies could potentially treat newborns already hospitalized with pertussis, according to Kaleko.

“When newborns come into the hospital with pertussis, they’re put on antibiotics and the antibiotics can kill the bacteria, but interestingly the patients still can go downhill,” Kaleko said. “We believe that is because there is a major variance factor called the pertussis toxin that is produced by the bacteria. Our antibodies work together to neutralize pertussis toxin.”

According to biology junior Immy Clover-Brown, the development of the antibodies is important to her as she pursues a career as a pediatrician.

“I am a strong supporter of vaccinations and think any progress with them and developing immunities is beneficial to society, including one for pertussis,” Clover-Brown said. “I plan on advocating for vaccination in my career to protect kids, including any kids who can’t be vaccinated.”