Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is the most significant microbial cause of birth defects, including brain damage and deafness, in developed nations. There is a compelling argument that a reduction in HCMV load would provide significant benefit in improving human health and reducing health care costs. Vaccination is the most practical way to achieve such a reduction in HCMV load. There are two important clinical settings where vaccination will have a significant impact on health outcome. The first is the prevention of the sequelae of congenital HCMV infection. A prophylactic vaccine to prevent congenital HCMV infection would make a major public health and economic contribution by reducing the incidence of birth defects.
The second setting is the prevention of HCMV-related complications in organ transplantation. HCMV is a major pathogen in both solid organ and bone marrow transplant recipients. We have identified a large number of cytotoxic T cell epitopes from a variety of HCMV antigens. A subset of epitopes from this group has been nominated for inclusion in a HCMV vaccine on the basis of human immune responsiveness and population coverage. These epitopes form an important component of a prophylactic vaccine for HCMV. Using the QIMR polyepitope technology, a model prophylactic vaccine has been developed which is currently undergoing preclinical testing. Preliminary studies indicate that each of the components of this vaccine is efficiently processed by human cells for display to the immune system and that strong T cell responses are induced when HLA class I transgenic mice are immunised with this vaccine. The HCMV program has also been successful in establishing collaborative links with several biotechnology companies to develop HCMV diagnostic applications. Any potential companies interested in licensing HCMV vaccine technology can contact QIMR Business Development Office or Tumour Immunology Laboratory.
(Jie Zhong, Michael Rist, Tania Crough, and Rajiv Khanna)