U.S.-based researchers reported that there is a possibility to make a safe vaccine against the type of bacteria best known for causing "strep throat" and rheumatic fever.
Strep throat or streptococcal sore throat is a form of group A streptococcal infection that affects the pharynx and possibly the larynx and tonsils.
The little piece of the bacteria that causes serious disease can be altered slightly into a form that may work as a vaccine, the team at the University of California , San Diego , reported.
Group A streptococcal infections affect more than 600 million people each year and kill 400,000 globally. Most infections cause throat inflammation known as "strep throat," which is easily treated with antibiotics.
But untreated strep throat infections can cause rheumatic fever, an often deadly inflammation of the heart. In countries where antibiotics are not easily available, rheumatic fever remains common and can weaken the hearts of survivors for life.
Group A streptococcus, or GAS, also can cause the "flesh-eating" syndrome called necrotizing fasciitis and blood-borne infections, including toxic shock syndrome.
It has been tricky to try to design a vaccine against GAS because the antigen -- the piece of the bacteria most easily recognized by the body's immune system -- is also the most dangerous part. It causes inflammation and the dangerous over-reaction of the immune system that leads to heart damage.
Partho Ghosh and colleagues at UCSD managed to get an image of this tiny structure, called M1 protein. Writing in the journal Science, they said they created a version of M1 that showed potential as a vaccine in mice.
"Using X-ray crystallography, we determined that M1 protein has an irregular, unstable structure," Ghosh said in a statement.
"We created a modified version of M1 with a more stable structure, and found that it is just as effective at eliciting an immune reaction, but safer than the original version of M1, which has serious drawbacks to its use in a vaccine."
Vaccines use antigens to prime the immune system to react against various invaders, by teaching immune cells to look for certain structures or proteins.
There are two widely used vaccines against other types of strep -- Wyeth's Prevnar, given to babies and toddlers in many countries, and Merck & Co's Pneumovax, given to adults.
These vaccines protect against pneumonia, ear infections, and other diseases cause by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria.
A spokesman at Novartis said the company has a GAS vaccine in the pipeline but it is in very early stages of testing.
The market potential is huge -- Wyeth's Prevnar shot has annual sales of $2 billion.