Defeating Whooping Cough

Defeating Whooping Cough

Pertussis, or whooping cough, kills 200,000 children each year, but a UT researcher’s work holds new promise.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory infection that claims the lives of 200,000 children around the world each year. It’s been in the headlines in the U.S. recently as it’s on the rise here, cropping up locally where the anti-vaccination movement has a foothold in Oregon, Washington, and California. Closer to home, cases in Texas have spiked as well, with 3,985 confirmed cases in 2013—the most since the 1950s—and 2,576 in 2014.

A pertussis vaccine already exists, but it isn’t perfect. The vaccine isn’t fully effective until after three doses—typically completed by the time a baby is 6 months old—and animal trials have shown that it doesn’t actually eliminate the pathogen, suggesting that unknowingly infected people may pass it to others. The disease causes uncontrollable coughing fits that can lead to trouble breathing, fainting, and even broken ribs. Fortunately, UT chemical engineering professor Jennifer Maynard, PhD ’02, thinks she’s found a way to alleviate these devastating effects. In collaboration with the pharmaceutical company Synthetic Biologics, Maynard has developed two antibodies that can be used to treat and prevent the infection.

“Infectious diseases are very complex,” Maynard says. “So far our initial results look promising.” A vaccine is similar to being infected. It works by injecting small pieces of bacteria to prompt your body to mount a defense. For pertussis, that defense consists of generating antibodies—like the ones Maynard developed—that are specific to pertussis toxins, and can bind to those toxins and prevent infection. Having mounted this defense against pertussis, a vaccinated person’s bloodstream is fully stocked with antibodies that can prevent future pertussis toxins encountered from doing harm.

In those unlucky enough to be unvaccinated and catch pertussis, the ensuing infection causes a buildup of toxins, then an onslaught of the white blood cells our bodies use to fight off disease. An overabundance of these cells causes more harm than good by thickening the blood so much that it cannot flow, which can lead to organ failure. “An important take-home message is if you are going to be around a baby, you should get vaccinated, because the vaccine provides good protection for the first three years,” Maynard says.

whooping-cough-2“With the antibodies, we’re interested primarily in helping the babies who have not been fully vaccinated,” she says, adding that most of the babies who die of whooping cough are in the developing world. “The idea here is that if a baby is going to see a doctor, that most likely will happen when they are born. The doctor could give them an injection of our antibodies, which would then protect [the baby] for the first four months of life when they are most likely to become very ill. So it is as if they had been immunized when they were born.”

Maynard says the other application of the antibodies will be in the U.S. and Europe, where about 10,000 children are hospitalized with pertussis every year. “Our hope there is where you have a kid who’s really sick [in the U.S. and Europe], we could give them our antibody and that would help them get better much more rapidly,” she says.

Maynard speaks enthusiastically about her partnership with Synthetic Biologics, explaining that the the NIH often funds university research on early stage ideas that, without pharmaceutical partnership, don’t lead to anything. The average time it takes for a drug to go from bench to bedside is 17 years, so for researchers like Maynard, partnering with a pharmaceutical company is a way to ensure that promising information can be turned into a real-world solution as quickly as possible.

“If there were more avenues to think of how to take things out of universities and turn them into drugs or see if they were viable, I think that would be fabulous for all of us,” Maynard says. According to Synthetic Biologics, her research may be applied in clinical trials in as few as seven years. Maynard, who studied human biology at Stanford before earning her PhD at UT, says she was drawn to work in STEM as much by science’s processes as by its transformative potential.

“When I was younger I liked to cook and I liked mystery stories. And science is both of those things, all the time. You’re always figuring out little mysteries and puzzles. And yet at the same time,” she adds, “you can feel like you’re doing something that will make the world better in some way.”

Photos from top: Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/

Pertussis disease under the microscope. Cases in Texas have spiked in recent years; Welcome Images/Caters News/


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