Editing a vaccine

A modified version of the tuberculosis BCG vaccine is more effective at protecting mice against the infection than the original vaccine.

Image showing a modified BCG vaccine designed to activate the ligand NOD-1 which is recognized by the immune system. Image credit: Barbara Smith (CC BY 4.0)

Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death from an infectious disease worldwide, partially due to a lack of access to drug treatments in certain countries where the disease is common. The only available tuberculosis vaccine – known as the BCG vaccine – is useful for preventing cases in young children, but is ineffective in teenagers and adults. So, there is a need to develop new vaccines that offer better, and longer lasting, durable protection in people of all ages.

During an infection, our immune system recognizes markers known as PAMPs on the surface of bacteria, viruses or other disease-causing pathogens. The recognition of PAMPs by the immune system enables the body to distinguish foreign invading organisms from its own cells and tissues, thus triggering a response that fights the infection. If the body encounters the infectious agent again in the future, the immune system is able to quickly recognize and eliminate it before it can cause disease. Vaccines protect us by mimicking the appearance of the pathogen to trigger the first immune response without causing the illness.

The BCG vaccine contains live bacteria that are closely related to the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Both M. tuberculosis and the live bacteria used in the BCG vaccine are able to hide an important PAMP, known as the NOD-1 ligand, from the immune system, making it harder for the body to detect them. The NOD-1 ligand forms part of the bacterial cell wall and modifying the BCG bacterium so it cannot disguise this PAMP may lead to a new, more effective vaccine.

To investigate this possibility, Shaku et al. used a gene editing approach to develop a modified version of the BCG bacterium which is unable to hide its NOD-1 ligand when treated with a specific drug. Immune cells trained with the modified BCG vaccine were more effective at controlling the growth of M. tuberculosis than macrophages trained using the original vaccine. Furthermore, mice vaccinated with the modified BCG vaccine were better able to limit M. tuberculosis growth in their lungs than mice that had received the original vaccine.

These findings offer a new candidate vaccine in the fight against tuberculosis. Further studies will be needed to modify the vaccine for use in humans. More broadly, this work demonstrates that gene editing can be used to expose a specific PAMP present in a live vaccine. This may help develop more effective vaccines for other diseases in the future.