FDA-Patented Invention Earns 2016 Patents for Humanity Award for Impact on Global Public Health

By: Carolyn A. Wilson, Ph.D., and Alice Welch, Ph.D. 

In 2003, two scientists in FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review within the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) developed a pivotal step in the manufacture of a vaccine now called MenAfriVac. This vaccine has since protected more than 235 million lives against recurring meningitis outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. The patented chemical method devised by these two researchers, Dr. Robert Lee and Dr. Carl E. Frasch, enabled the production of the inexpensive and highly effective MenAfriVac vaccine, earning FDA a 2016 Patents for Humanity Award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Carolyn A. Wilson

Carolyn A. Wilson, Ph.D., Associate Director for Research at FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

FDA’s scientific research doesn’t often grab headlines. But FDA’s research program is a critical part of the work we do to protect public health and speed innovations that make safe and effective medicines available. And sometimes FDA scientists make significant discoveries that are patentable inventions. When they do, FDA’s Technology Transfer program facilitates the transfer of such technologies to the private sector so they can become useful solutions to public health challenges. The MenAfriVac vaccine is a stellar example of such an FDA invention.

So it was with particular pride and satisfaction that we joined Drs. Lee and Frasch this past November as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office honored them with a Patents for Humanity Award, in recognition of the critical contribution the patented technique made to the development of the MenAfriVac vaccine.

The story began in late 2003, when Dr. Lee devised a set of chemical reactions for a technique called “conjugation.” It is a method for efficiently linking one ingredient of a potential vaccine with a molecule that supercharges that ingredient’s ability to stimulate the immune system. That chemical joining, along with the collaboration with Dr. Frasch, became the basis of the FDA patent.

At the time, it was just another quiet development in the quest to make the production of certain types of vaccines more efficient. Little did the two researchers know that this patent would later help the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-supported non-profit PATH save tens of thousands of lives in the African meningitis belt.

Alice Welch

Alice Welch, Ph.D., Director of FDA’s Technology Transfer Program.

Just a couple of years earlier in 2001, the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a World Health Organization (WHO) and PATH partnership, had received Gates Foundation funding. Their goal was to produce an inexpensive, safe, and effective vaccine so that the affected countries could afford mass group A meningitis vaccination programs.

But MVP lacked access to a technique that was simple, efficient, and produced meningitis vaccines inexpensively. Thanks to the scientific accomplishment of these two scientists, CBER was able to provide its new technique to MVP via PATH, through a technology transfer agreement made with help from the National Institutes of Health. CBER also developed reagents to evaluate the performance and safety of the vaccine as well as methods to monitor the manufacturing process. And in December 2003, scientists from the Serum Institute of India Limited came to CBER to learn how to use the technique to make the vaccine on MVP’s behalf. The resulting vaccine didn’t need to be refrigerated, which greatly simplified deployment of this product in sub-Saharan Africa.

Awards Ceremony

Alice Welch holds the 2016 Patent for Humanity Award from the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Also in attendance for the ceremony were (left to right) Carolyn Wilson, Carl Frasch, and Robert Lee.

Early in December 2010, MVP initiated its vaccination campaign using MenAfriVac, first in Burkina Faso, then Mali, and then Niger. A year later, MVP extended the campaign to Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria.

WHO is now helping countries transition from mass campaigns to routine immunization to establish sustainable disease control in the region. By 2020 the vaccine is expected to have protected more than 400 million people, preventing 100 million cases of meningitis A, 150,000 deaths, and 250,000 cases of severe disability.

In an era when established and emerging infectious disease outbreaks affect the lives of more people worldwide than ever before, the American public and the global community will increasingly depend on FDA to provide the kind of scientific research and expertise that have led to the successful development of medical countermeasures and vaccines like MenAfriVac.

Carolyn A. Wilson, Ph.D., is Associate Director for Research at FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

Alice Welch, Ph.D., is Director of FDA’s Technology Transfer Program.

FDA Assists in the Success against Epidemic Meningitis in Africa

By: Marc Kusinitz, PhD

Meningococcal meningitis, a disease that sweeps across sub-Saharan Africa in an area called the meningitis belt, is losing its power to inflict illness and death. Scientists from FDA made a critical contribution in developing the technology needed to manufacture a vaccine against this terrible disease, and at an affordable cost for African nations like Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, and Niger.

Meningococcal meningitis can be deadly. It kills 10 percent of people it infects within two days after they start showing symptoms. Although an antimicrobial drug saves large numbers of infected individuals, about 10 percent die from the infection and about 10 percent to 20 percent of survivors develop mental retardation, hearing loss, or seizures. In Africa, most meningococcal disease is caused by the group A meningococcus bacteria, and about half of its victims are working-age adolescents and young adults. The disease results in very significant human, social, and economic losses to the affected communities and countries. Vaccination offers the best chance to prevent the disease and epidemic meningitis. However, an existing vaccine didn’t work very well.

Developing a Vaccine:

In 2001, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to fund the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP)–a partnership between the World Health Organization and PATH, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, WA that works with collaborating groups to provide health care technologies and strategies to areas of the world that have limited resources.

Dr. F. Marc LaForce led MVP’s effort to develop, test and license a new type of vaccine against group A meningococcus bacteria, that could protect people before an epidemic begins. The new vaccine, called a conjugate, is a chain of sugars connected to a protein that the immune system responds to very well. When MVP hit a hurdle during the development stage, FDA stepped in. Drs. Robert Lee and Carl E. Frasch, two researchers in the Office of Vaccines Research and Review in FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), had developed an alternative conjugation technology that was more efficient and less costly. Through a technology transfer agreement, FDA provided the technology to MVP via PATH, with help from the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists at CBER also developed reagents for evaluating the vaccine’s performance and safety and developed methods to monitor the manufacturing process. MVP had partnered with the Serum Institute of India Limited, a developing-country vaccine manufacturer, to make the new conjugated vaccine. In December 2003, two scientists from the Serum Institute came to Drs. Lee and Frasch’s FDA laboratory to learn the conjugation method to manufacture the vaccine.

After preclinical animal studies and a series of clinical trials in people in India and Africa’s meningitis belt to assess its safety and effectiveness, the new vaccine, MenAfriVac, was licensed in Dec. 2009 by India for export to Africa. By June 2010, the WHO had prequalified the vaccine for use in global immunization programs.

Woman Receiving Vaccination

September 2010. A woman in Mali receives MenAfriVac in an early introduction in preparation for the official vaccine program launch in December. Photo: WHO/Mali

Launching the Vaccination Campaign:

MVP launched its vaccination campaign in Dec. 2010, beginning in Burkina Faso and moving on to Mali and Niger and eventually Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. By the end of 2011, an estimated 55 million people had been vaccinated with MenAfriVac at a cost of only 40 cents per dose.

The contribution of CBER researchers Carl Frasch and Robert Lee was perhaps best summed up by MVP director Dr. LaForce in a news story about their timely contribution of the conjugation technology that enabled the development of MenAfriVac at a price that Africa could afford: “These guys are heroes.”

FDA’s contributions to a major health care project in Africa underscore the agency’s recognition that infectious diseases know no borders. Protecting human health globally is linked to the agency’s core mission of protecting human health in the United States.

Marc Kusinitz is Senior Science Communications Advisor in FDA’s Center for Biological Evaluation and Research