New Epstein-Barr vaccine may thwart infection and later disease, too

Interest in developing a vaccine for Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV, has grown as the link between infection and later consequences like multiple sclerosis and cancer has become clear. A new vaccine that appears effective in mice could protect against both short- and long-term disease.

In a new paper published Aug. 8 in Nature Communications, scientists from QIMR Berghofer Centre for Immunotherapy and Vaccine Development in Queensland, Australia and Boston-based Elicio Therapeutics described how they developed an EBV vaccine that trains both T cells and antibodies to fight off the virus. The researchers are working towards taking the vaccine to clinical trials.

“What we’ve done is come up with [a] platform technology … that can actually generate T cell immunity effectively and sustain T cell immunity,” co-corresponding author Rajiv Khanna, Ph.D., said in a YouTube video on the development. “That has been a big step forward.”

While scientists have attempted to develop an EBV vaccine for years, interest has grown since a link was established between infection with the virus and later multiple sclerosis. There’s evidence that other diseases may be driven by EBV too, including cancer.

Moderna, Merck, Sanofi and a team at Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle are among the groups pursuing EBV vaccines. Though their delivery platforms vary, all of those vaccines work by generating antibodies to the virus.

Elicio and QIMR, however, hope their candidate will be more robust against both short- long-term disease by keeping EBV out of B cells in the tonsils, where the virus takes hold. This is due to its ability to stimulate T cells along with antibodies. Though they didn’t compare the vaccine to other candidates, they did see that mice who received it still had neutralizing antibodies and T cells against the virus more than seven months after receiving the shot.

“This combination of…immunity against multiple viral determinants is likely to provide better protection against primary infection and control of latently infected B cells leading to protection against the development of EBV-associated diseases,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

The vaccine also appeared to suppress cancer associated with EBV. The researchers showed that when T cells and antibodies armed against the virus were adoptively transferred into mice with B cell lymphoma, a malignancy commonly associated with EBV, they prevented the cancer from progressing and growing—something other vaccines that only induce antibodies would be unlikely to do, the researchers noted.

In addition to Elicio, the team at QIMR is also looking to work with other industry partners to fund its clinical trials on the vaccine, Kanna added in the video.

“To be honest, no [publicly funded] agency, small or large, can [afford to] fund these large clinical trials,” Khanna said in the video. “So we do need industry support on that, and we’ve been very fortunate to get early support from industry on this program.”

QIMR and Elicio are aiming to have the vaccine in clinical trials in 2024 or 2025, he said.