A study led by the University of Southampton has discovered findings which could contribute to the creation of a vaccine against the Lassa virus.
Lassa is a highly infectious agent which is part of a panel of viruses, including Ebola, that can cause haemoharragic fever in humans.
Commonly found in West Africa, it is often spread to humans through the handling of rats, food, or household items which have been contaminated by rat urine and faeces. It can be spread from person to person through contaminated bedding and clothing, or by direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected.
There is currently no effective vaccine or treatment for combatting the virus. However, the findings of the Southampton-led research, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), will help subsequent efforts to combat its spread.
The current Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria, which is the largest ever reported in the country, has led to 444 confirmed cases of the disease and 111 recorded deaths to date, according to the country’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC).
A vaccine that could successfully combat the virus would be likely to include the ‘viral spike’, which helps the virus enter a target cell. Researchers hope that a vaccine mimicking the viral spike would encourage the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to neutralise the disease.
One reason why producing a vaccine against the Lassa virus is so difficult is the dense coat of sugars attached to the ‘viral spike’ (known as glycans) which enable it to evade detection by the body’s immune system.
Professor Max Crispin, the University’s Principal Investigator on the Study, said:
We hope that by understanding the glycan shield of Lassa virus we will be able to help in the efforts to generate an effective vaccine.
Given the impact of Nigeria’s largest-ever Lassa fever outbreak this year, it is critical that we begin to identify the idiosyncrasies which could help to create a vaccine to combat this highly infectious agent and ensure it is contained.
The full study can be viewed here.