University researchers to tackle drug-resistant disease that jumps from pigs to humans

University of Plymouth researchers have received over £700,000 to combat an emerging antibiotic-resistant disease able to jump from pigs to humans with potentially fatal effect. 

The Vaccine Group (TVG), a university spinout company founded by Dr Michael Jarvis, will use the grant from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to develop a vaccine to prevent the spread of Streptococcus suis (“S.suis”) – which can cause infections of the brain lining, meningitis, blood poisoning, or septicaemia, as well as many other serious diseases in humans.

As part of the consortium, Professor Mat Upton, Associate Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences, will identify targets for the new vaccines being developed by TVG.

Incidents of S.suis have been rising globally and in Asia it is now classified as an emerging threat. S.suis is currently treated with antibiotics, but there is growing evidence that it is becoming resistant to them. Effective vaccines remove the need to use antibiotics in animals. 

Administered by Innovate UK, the project will develop TVG’s novel herpesvirus-based platform technology to create a single-use vaccine for use in pigs. 

The vaccine technology is based on safe forms of herpesviruses, which occur in nearly all animals, including humans. The vaccines are created by modifying these viruses through inserting regions of the pathogen (i.e. harmful microorganism) being targeted to stimulate immune responses against the disease.

The work will be undertaken with Chinese partners, including the Shanghai Veterinary Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science, and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. A major producer of swine and poultry vaccines, the Pulike Biological Engineering Company, is the commercial partner. 

TVG was founded by Dr Michael Jarvis, Associate Professor of Immunology and Virology at the University’s Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine (ITSMed), alongside the University’s intellectual property partners, Frontier IP. 

Because the resulting vaccine is herpesvirus-based, it has the potential to spread from animal to animal. Once a critical mass of animals is immune due to infection with the vaccine, the zoonotic disease (ie one which can transfer from animals to humans) no longer poses a danger to humans. 

The grant was awarded as part a bilateral research competition between the DHSC’s Global antimicrobial resistance (AMR) Innovation Fund and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology: 

UK-China partnerships against antimicrobial resistance get funding

A review by economist Lord O’Neill estimated that AMR caused 700,000 deaths each year globally. 

TVG founder and director Associate Professor Michael Jarvis said:

“Vaccination to control bacterial diseases has been shown to be really effective in the fish industry, and it does this without increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics (AMR). We’re therefore very excited about the opportunity this grant gives to expand this approach to a major bacterial disease of pigs that is increasingly being spread to humans.

“AMR and emerging infectious disease are global problems, and this grant also demonstrates the strength of bringing together scientists and stakeholders from across the globe to address common societal issues.

“This exciting development supports the novel approach The Vaccine Group has towards creating new vaccines to combat the spread of dangerous diseases from one animal species to another.”

Professor Mat Upton, who is also based in ITSMed at the University of Plymouth, said:

“As mentioned in the recent UK Government five-year National Action Plan on AMR, reduction of antibiotic use in humans and animals will be a key part of addressing the threat posed by AMR.

“Vaccinating animals should lead to a reduction in disease and less need for use of antibiotics. We’re delighted to be a key part of this consortium and will be identifying targets for the new vaccines that will be developed using TVG technology and trialled in China with our prestigious collaborators. China produces and consumes about 50 per cent of the global pork meat, so we expect our project will lead to a significant reduction in agricultural use of antibiotics.”

Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said: 

“Drug resistant infections claim hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe. An innovative and international response is vital – this latest collaboration between the UK and China guarantees much needed research to address the complex and world-wide issue of AMR.”

Dr Kath Mackay, Interim Director – Ageing Society, Health & Nutrition, Innovate UK said: 

“Antimicrobial resistance is one of the biggest global challenges in healthcare. It has been estimated that the AMR threat could lead to 10 million extra deaths a year and cost the global economy up to £75 trillion by 2050.This partnership between China and the UK’s world-leading bio-industry is a vital contribution to tacking this issue through international co-operation.”

Frontier IP chief executive officer Neil Crabb said: 

"TVG’s novel vaccine technology has the potential to play a material role in beating the threats of antimicrobial resistance and, more widely, from life-threatening diseases which infect animals and then jump to humans.”

Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine (ITSMed)

Bringing together scientists, clinicians and expertise from across the spectrum of scientific discovery, medical research and health technology.

Home to the University of Plymouth’s world-class biomedical, clinical and applied health research.

Find out more about ITSMed and our research

Antibiotic resistant pathogens research group

Antibiotic resistant infections are one of the leading threats to human health and modern medicine. The WHO and international governments have stated that urgent measures are needed to avert the crisis we face.

In our group, we have a programme of drug discovery to help meet the need for new antibiotics. Our lead antimicrobial, epidermicin, has unique activity in a relevant infection model and is in pre-clinical testing. 

These antibiotics are of a new class (bacteriocins), have novel mechanisms of action and have excellent potential for development into the next generation of powerful antibiotics to treat and prevent drug resistant infections.