Gene sequencing at record speeds to identify dangerous mutations. A treatment that delays Type 1 diabetes for years. A vaccine to prevent RSV infections, which kill thousands of Americans each year.
Below we describe these and other recent developments in academic medicine that could help save the lives of millions of patients.
An RSV vaccine
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) made headlines this winter for its role in the tripledemic that, together with COVID-19 and flu, slammed many U.S. hospitals. But now there’s some good news related to RSV: On May 3, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its first-ever approval to a vaccine that protects against the dangerous condition.
Each year, RSV is associated with 6,000 to 10,000 deaths of U.S. adults 65 and older, and as many as 160,000 hospitalizations for that vulnerable group. It also kills hundreds of children under the age of 5.
“This is immensely satisfying,” says Ann Falsey, MD, a University of Rochester School of Medicine professor of medicine who has been pursuing an RSV vaccine for decades. “In science, even if you don’t make it across the finish line, you may feel like you contributed. But to actually see these products close to coming to market is huge.”
There are actually two RSV vaccines in the pipeline. The vaccine that was just approved by the FDA was developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and is targeted to adults 60 and older. Next, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will weigh in on whether to recommend the vaccine, and that’s expected to happen in June. The FDA is also expected to rule shortly on a Pfizer vaccine for that population. In addition, Pfizer has been granted priority review of a vaccine for use in pregnant people that’s intended to protect their infants after birth.
These vaccine advances all are thanks to a better understanding of how RSV works, especially a component called the fusion protein — F-protein for short. “If you inject the F-protein, then the body produces antibodies against it that bind to the virus, blocking it from entering cells,” says Falsey, who has researched the Pfizer RSV vaccine.
“I’ve seen the faces of patients [with RSV]. I’ve seen the suffering. It’s not abstract to me. So when I saw the results of the first study, I was dancing around my office.”
Ann Falsey, MD
University of Rochester School of Medicine
In trials, the GSK vaccine was 83% effective against confirmed RSV lower respiratory disease in people 60 and older, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
There was a possibly concerning side effect, though. A small percentage (1 out of some 12,000 in the GSK trial and 2 out of some 17,000 Pfizer recipients) developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which the immune system attacks a person’s nervous system. One Pfizer case was considered life-threatening, but researchers noted other possible causes for the condition in the three patients, and all survived.
“When the vaccines start to be given to millions