Lost genes may be causing TB vaccine's failure
The tuberculosis vaccine may no longer work and McGill and Stanford researchers have discovered a possible reason why: the bacteria used to make the vaccine have jettisoned some of their genes.
[Media representatives who wish to know more about human resistance to tuberculosis are invited to contact Dr md88 [at] musica [dot] mcgill [dot] ca (Emil Skamene), Scientific Director, MUHC, (514) 934-8038. Those who would also wish to discuss the genetic aspects of diseases are invited to contact Dr thudson [at] genome [dot] wi [dot] mit [dot] edu (Thomas Hudson), Assistant Director of the MIT Whitehead Institutes Center for Genome Research, Director of the Montreal Genome Center and Assistant Professor in the McGill Departments of Medicine and Human Genetics, (514) 937-6011 loc. 2456. Journalists who wish to receive a copy of Dr Behrs article are invited to contact Anne-Marie Bourdouxhe, Senior Communications Officer, McGill University (514) 398-6754.]
Nearly 80 years old, the tuberculosis vaccine is showing its age. This stalwart of the global campaign against TB may no longer work. McGill and Stanford researchers have discovered a possible reason why: the bacteria used to make the vaccine have jettisoned some of their genes. The discovery could guide the development of an up-to-date vaccine as well as a more accurate diagnostic test.
The TB vaccine, known as BCG, is one of the most widely used vaccines in the world. Roughly 1 billion people have received it, and another 100 million are vaccinated each year. "The vaccine is given to every newborn in the developing world," said McGill professor Marcel A. Behr, MD, lead author of the study published in the May 28 issue of Science. "The good news is that its safe. The bad news is that we dont know if it does anything." Behr, a specialist in infectious diseases and and Assistant Professor of medical microbiology at McGill University in Montreal, was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford when he conducted the research.
BCG contains live bacteria that must grow inside the body to stimulate a protective reaction from the immune system. Scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris created the vaccine in the early part of this century by domesticating a cattle bacterium that is very similar to the TB bacterium. The French scientists grew the cattle germ for more than 200 generations in a nutritious broth, a procedure that sapped the bacteriums disease-causing tendency without reducing its similarity to TB.
As far as the immune system is concerned, this cattle bacterium is a dead ringer for the TB bacterium. The early versions of the vaccine were probably quite good at stimulating the immune system to make defenses against TB, said Peter M. Small, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and one of Behrs collaborators. However, the vaccine has lost this ability in the years since, he said.
Small, Behr and colleagues suspected that genetic changes in the bacteria used in BCG might be behind this deterioration. To test their idea, they used a newly developed technology called a DNA microarray, which allows the quick analysis of an organisms full complement of genes.
The researchers found that the bacteria used in BCG were missing 38 genes that occur in wild strains of the cattle bacterium. Presumably, these genes have disappeared through natural mutations since the cattle bacterium was first brought into the lab to make the vaccine. Bacteria that had lost so many genes probably would not survive outside the lab, Small said. "But its a pretty cush life for a bacterium to grow in a laboratory," he said. With every need met, the bacteria can survive without some formerly indispensable genes.
Once easy living robbed the bacteria of their ability to survive within the human body, they could no longer trigger the immune system. "We take the mutants that have been pampered in the lab and inject them into people," Small said. "I think the bacteria may be dying so quickly that they arent eliciting an immune response."
Small thinks that the progressive weakening of the vaccine can be traced to what happened after its introduction in the early 1920s. Until techniques for drying bacteria for storage were invented in the early 1960s, the only way to keep producing the vaccine was to keep raising the bacteria in the lab. The vaccine went through more than 1,000 generations in that period, growing weaker and weaker. "Essentially, BCG is a vaccine that has been attenuated to impotence," Small said.
Knowing whats missing from BCG may help scientists craft a better TB vaccine. But the first application from these results will likely be a more accurate test for TB infection, Small said. One thing that BCG does is stimulate a positive reaction on the most commonly used test for TB infection, the PPD test. This makes it difficult to distinguish people who have TB from those who have merely been vaccinated against it.
But when the researchers compared the genes of the TB bacterium with those from the cattle bacterium, they found that the TB bacterium has 91 genes that are not present in its close relative. The products of these genes could be synthesized and included in a diagnostic test that would recognize only TB infection.
Why are millions of people receiving a vaccine that may be worthless? "The reason it is given is that in certain studies it has shown benefit, and its hard to take away something thats beneficial," Behr said. He added that the vaccine does seem to protect children against a form of tuberculosis that often strikes the young. It just doesnt seem to work against the adult form of the disease, which primarily attacks the lungs. BCG is not used in the United States and is given only to high risk populations in Canada," Behr said.
Behr and Smalls co-authors, at Stanford, include Professor of Medicine Gary K. Schoolnik, MD; post-doctoral fellow Hugh Salamon, PhD; medical student Wendy P. Gill; graduate student Michael A. Wilson; and technician Sangit Rane.