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.
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.
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.
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.