Needle-free vaccine to take sting out of whooping cough

Maynooth researchers helped develop new immunisation method

Prof Bernard Mahon said the vaccine has had successful initial trials in humans.

Prof Bernard Mahon said the vaccine has had successful initial trials in humans.


Scientists have come up with a new vaccine that doesn’t require needle injection and is safe enough for a newborn baby. The research group included a team from NUI Maynooth and a company has already signed up to exploit the important new technology.

The vaccine has had successful initial trials in humans, said Prof Bernard Mahon, professor of cellular immunology at Maynooth and leader of an eight-strong group there. “It is almost like a platform vaccine. At the moment it works for whooping cough but in the future we will be able to make it effective against many other other agents, for example one that causes bronchitis in infants,” he said.

Normally it takes five to 10 years to design, produce and test the safety of a new vaccine type, but in this case it took only two and a half years, Prof Mahon said. But this vaccine will find favour with parents and children for a different reason, no needles are involved.

Instead it is given as a nasal spray and can be used right after birth to provide quick protection against the disease. Normally injected whooping cough vaccinations are not given until the baby is two months old, but that leaves the infant at risk of catching this dangerous disease.

The researchers used the latest genetic engineering technology to knock out the bad parts of the bacterium, but left in place its ability to grow and make the immune system attack it, Prof Mahon said.

“We kicked bits of the disease-causing parts of the bacterium out so that we could have a safe vaccine but one that is very safe. The bacterium is alive but no longer able to cause disease.”

The €5m EU-funded project, Child-Innovac, was led by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and had 10 partners in seven countries including Ireland.

The Maynooth team worked on the immunology, checking for safety not just in healthy newborns but also children with a damaged immune system. “We wanted it safe but safe in as many scenarios as possible,” he said.

NUI Maynooth is one of the patent holders and so should benefit when the new vaccine reaches the market via the biotech company ILiAD. The company signed licence agreements with plans to manufacture it, but the real appeal is that the same techniques can be used to deliver other vaccines that can be given with out injection. “That is why ILiAD is interested,” Prof Mahon said. And it can be manufactured at a lower cost than current vaccines.

Whooping cough remains a dangerous disease despite the availability of good vaccines. One in 500 cases will result in death or brain damange and 90 per cent of the deaths are in children under six months, according to HSE figures.