MedImmune is gaining on Lyme disease New protein find keys research to create a vaccine

Firm's 'very intense focus'

Discovery takes work on different track from the past

Biotechnology

June 24, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

MedImmune, the Gaithersburg biotechnology company developing vaccines and other therapies for infectious diseases, said it has licensed a breakthrough discovery in its quest to develop a Lyme disease vaccine.

The publicly held company said the vaccine it plans to develop from the discovery would be dramatically different from those under development now by the company and two competitors.

Mark Kaufmann, a spokesman for MedImmune, said the company has assigned a high priority to developing a Lyme disease vaccine based on the discovery.

It hopes to develop a product that could move into human trials by next year, he added.

Human trials for a new drug can take two to five years before enough data has been gathered to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for marketing.

"This is a very intense focus of research for us right now," said Kaufmann.

Specifically, MedImmune said it has licensed the rights to develop a new protein discovered to be part of the bacterium -- called Borrelia burgdorfi -- that causes the disease,

MedImmune's director of molecular microbiology, Dr. Mark Hanson, presented the protein discovery last week in San Francisco at a conference of the world's leading Lyme disease experts.

The company said it believes the protein is found in many different strains of the bacteria.

If that's true, it could open the door to a product with a worldwide market. Lyme disease is now found in many countries, according to experts.

People infected by the bacteria, which in the United States are passed to humans by deer ticks, can experience a ring-like rash, flu-like symptoms, joint and muscle pain and, if untreated, cardiac or neurological problems.

The protein discovery was made by scientists at Texas A&M University. They named the protein "decorin binding protein," or DBP, because it binds to a protein common in human cartilage called decorin.

Most significantly, said MedImmune, its scientists have been able to show in animal tests that a DBP-based antibody injection blocked the growth of many strains of the bacteria.

The company's research also showed the protein-based antibody cleared the bacteria from the body up to four days after the mice subjects were infected.

Dr. Stephen Barthold, a Lyme disease expert and professor at Yale University School of Medicine, where Lyme disease was identified, said the discovery held strong promise for developing a vaccine to fight Lyme disease during the early stages of infection.

MedImmune, as well as two competitors, Connaught Laboratories of Swiftwater, Pa., and SmithKline Beecham Plc of Philadelphia, have Lyme disease vaccine candidates in separate late-stage human trials.

Each is based on a different protein -- called the outer-surface A protein -- found in the bacteria causing the disease.

However, some Lyme disease experts, such as Dr. Raymond Dattwyler of the Lyme Disease Center at the University Medical Center at Stony Brook, N.Y., are skeptical that vaccines based on targeting the outer surface A protein will be universally effective against the disease.

The reason, said Dattwyler: There are many different strains of the bacteria that may not necessarily contain the outer-surface A protein.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is now more prevalent in the United States than mumps, measles and meningitis.

In 1995, there were 11,603 cases reported to the CDC, an 11 percent decrease from 1994. It is most common in eight states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The disease usually is successfully treated with antibiotics.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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