London, May 15 : British scientists have achieved a significant breakthrough in obtaining powerful immune responses in 150 infants against meningitis, the infection that kills about one in 10 and often leads to permanent disabilities in many of its sufferers.
Experts at the Health Protection Agency in Manchester say that trials of a potential vaccine suggest that it may be protective against the group B type of the disease.
They also think that the vaccine may virtually eliminate the devastating bacterial infection from Britain and other European countries, for vaccines against group C meningitis and Hib meningitis have already reduced the causes of meningitis by more than 90 per cent.
"I believe we should be very excited indeed. Ten years ago we had success with a vaccine against group C disease but, so far, we have had no real prospect of controlling group B disease," the Independent quoted Ray Borrow, the head of the vaccine evaluation department at the Health Protection Agency in Manchester, as saying.
"There are 20,000 to 80,000 cases of meningitis B globally and roughly 1,200 cases in the UK each year, of which 10 per cent result in death. The prospect of one vaccine that protects infants worldwide against (meningitis B) would be a key achievement in global disease prevention of our time," he added.
Developed by the Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis, the new vaccine contains multiple "antigens", bacterial proteins designed to counter different strains, developed during a study of 85 strains of group B disease.
It has so far been tested against three "representative" strains in the current trial, and lab tests on blood samples of the 150 babies in the study showed that they had better than 85 per cent protection against the three strains.
While presenting the findings to the European Society of Paediatric Infectious Diseases in Austria, Dr Borrow said that the laboratory results for the group B vaccine were as good as those for the group C vaccine a decade ago.
"We have now virtually eliminated group C disease. I am confident this vaccine will provide broad protection against a range of strains of group B disease. We have full data on three strains and partial data on two more strains which are representative of other components of the vaccine," he said.
A spokesman for the Meningitis Research Foundation said: "This is really exciting news. It is what we have been working towards. If it goes through phase three trials (successfully), we will have cracked the Holy Grail. It will be virtually the end of the story on meningitis and it will put organisations like ours out of business."
Dr. Burrow, however, made it clear that it would still be "some years" before a vaccine was introduced.