By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
Omniose, a St. Louis startup at BioSTL, receives $3 million dollars in federal funding to advance a vaccine for a potentially deadly infection. Group B Streptococcus (GBS), or group B strep, is an invasive bacterial infection that’s on the radar of OB-GYNs and pediatricians when pregnant women are close to giving birth.
“GBS is a leading cause of neonatal disease,” said Christian Harding, PhD, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Omniose.
Group B strep is linked to nearly 150,000 infant deaths worldwide each year. The research and development for a vaccine targeting group B strep is done in BioGenerator Labs at BioSTL.
“All around the world, newborns can be infected with this GBS bacteria. Vaccinating that population is really not feasible. So, the approach is a maternal vaccine. Immunizing pregnant moms in the third trimester,” said Harding. “The idea is that we’ll develop a maternal vaccine to prevent group B strep infections.”
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the US National Institutes of Health awarded Omniose a three-year, $3 million contract for the research and development of a vaccine for group B strep.
“This is to develop our multivalent group B strep at a more a higher scale,” said Harding.
The bacteria are found in about 25% of all healthy adult women. It lives in parts of the GI and genital tracts.
“Group B strep is already there,” Harding explained. “So, a majority of women are colonized naturally. It doesn’t do anything most of the time. However, for a newborn with a very weak and not developed immune system, it can be very deadly and causes meningitis or neurological impairment.”
Pregnant women can pass the bacteria to their babies during delivery, and even before. Group B strep causes an estimated 46,000 stillbirths worldwide each year. The idea for the maternal vaccine is to pass along the vaccine induced antibodies to fetuses. The hope is for a vaccine to provide meaningful protection against the disease before and after they are born. Harding says the infection could also overwhelm the mother.
“During that birthing and labor process, that’s a lot of strain on moms. She can acquire the bacterial infection just into her bloodstream and can get disease and sickness from that.”
Another motivation for vaccine development, group B strep is also a leading cause of invasive infection in older adults.
“GBS is the leading cause of invasive bacterial disease in the United States in the 65 and older population,” Harding said.
Harding says the goal of Omniose is to develop a GBS vaccine with the highest efficacy by using a greatly simplified production process.
“We do subunit vaccines. A subunit vaccine takes a piece of the pathogen, it could be a virus or a bacteria. In our case, we only do bacterial subunit vaccines and they’re called conjugate vaccines.”
Omniose certainly isn’t alone in the race for a vaccine to fight GBS disease!
“Pfizer is leading the pack. Pfizer does these types of things very well. So, they have a conjugate vaccine targeting GBS,” Harding explained. “They are ahead.”
But Harding said the Omniose platform has an edge by using synthetic biology with enzymatic rather than chemical methods.
“We do it enzymatically. We’ve engineered the lab safe bacterium called E. coli to make that vaccine-specific polysaccharide against the group B strep,” he said. “Make the carrier protein and what we have is a proprietary enzyme that moves the polysaccharides onto that carrier protein and covalently attaches them. So, it’s a one-step reaction to make that conjugate vaccine. And that’s what differentiates us from Pfizer and other big pharma that use this chemical conjugation approach.”
Omniose is working towards the goal of saving lives and preventing significant long-term disabilities from the disease. It’s also about protecting families from the grief of losing a baby from what could be a preventable disease.