U leads study on meningitis B vaccine

The results showed a majority of vaccine recipients had an immune response

David Clarey

When Princeton University was struck with nine cases of meningitis B from 2013-14, a research scholar at the school — Nicole Basta — began the arduous task of studying Bexsero, a new vaccine that prevents the disease.

While the drug is licensed in Europe but not the U.S., the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed Princeton to offer Bexsero to its students in response to the outbreak.

Basta — who is now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health — led a research team that analyzed bodies’ immune responses to the vaccine by examining blood samples from several hundred students who received Bexsero at Princeton.

“This really presented a rare opportunity for us to evaluate the vaccine under real-world conditions,” Basta said.

For the study, Basta worked with collaborators from Princeton and Public Health England. While Bexsero was not specifically developed from the menegitis B strain in Princeton’s outbreak, two-thirds of those inoculated experienced an immune response to the campus’ strain. Of those in Basta’s test sample, nearly all had an immune response to at least one of the meningitis strains present in the Bexsero vaccine.

“The fact that two-thirds of students had an immune response against an outbreak strain is actually quite remarkable for a new vaccine,” she said.

Afterward, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which develops recommendations for the use of vaccines, used Basta’s findings to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine, Basta said.

To devise recommendations, the committee discusses how many diseases a vaccination can fight against and the duration of immunity a vaccine can provide.

Since 1991, there have been two cases of bacterial meningitis among University of Minnesota students. Neither, however, were diagnosed at the clinic, said Holly Ziemer, director of communications at Boynton Health Service.

In the state, meningitis B cases have been cited 31 times between 2011 and 2015, said Lynn Bahta, an immunization clinical consultant for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Because of the prevalence of vaccination, meningitis cases are at a historic low, Bahta said. Still, among children 10 years old and younger — and young adults ages 18-24 — outbreaks sometimes spike.

“Among adolescents, meningococcal disease seems to have a much more aggressive effect on the individual so that it can cause increased maiming,” Bacha said.

The maiming, she said, can result in brain injury, loss of limbs or death.

In the coming years, Basta’s team will follow up with students involved in the study to identify the timespan of immunity. And while the FDA licensed Bexsero for use in 2015, creating the meningitis B vaccine proved more difficult than creation of vaccines for other strains of the disease, Basta said.

“It just turns out to be a little more difficult, technologically, to create an effective meningitis B vaccine,” Basta said.