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This article is part of a series of research impact stories related to our REF 2021 submission.

Neonatal sepsis and meningitis are responsible for more than 90,000 infant deaths per year globally. A driving cause of these conditions is a bacterial infection called Group B streptococcus (GBS). St George’s researchers have been at the forefront of understanding this infection and preventing infant deaths. 

Over the last 20 years, our researchers, including Professor Kirsty Le Doare and Professor Paul Heath from the Centre for Neonatal and Paediatric Infection & Vaccine Institute (Institute for Infection and Immunity), have focused on understanding these conditions and preventing infant deaths.  

Professor Heath and colleagues undertook the first national surveillance study in the UK to establish the burden of GBS in the UK and risk factors for infection. The work led to a new prevention strategy and further research, including a surveillance study between 2014 and 2015, which identified even more risk factors.  

“Our surveillance studies identified that more could be done to prevent deaths from GBS,” says Professor Heath. “As well as highlighting measures associated with increased risk of disease, we put forward that an alternative vaccine-based approach for pregnant mothers would help to protect more new-born infants.” 

The research group has since led internationally in developing vaccine strategies against a range of serious infant infections. Regarded as leaders in their field, the team have run more pregnancy vaccine trials than any other centre in the UK.  

They have received international funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and their work has helped define the UK’s guidelines for preventing GBS disease in babies. 

In particular, Professor Le Doare’s work on understanding the levels of antibodies needed to protect against disease has facilitated new regulatory thinking on alternative pathways to licensing vaccines. 

“Previously, large sample sizes in trials were required before a vaccine could be approved,” says Professor Le Doare. “But by assessing the existing evidence, we’ve shown that immunological data from vaccine studies can be used to establish whether a vaccine protects against disease or not. 

“This has been essential in removing the barriers for vaccine approval and means we can now move towards licensing maternal vaccines more quickly than ever before.” 

Working with Pfizer and Minervax, the two leading vaccine candidate manufacturers, and funded by the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, the team are currently conducting studies in Uganda, and separately, in the UK, which they hope will lead to a GBS vaccine being licenced. 

“Our hope is that a vaccine could be licensed and ready to be given to pregnant women by 2025,” says Professor Le Doare. “Alongside testing, this would accelerate progress towards removing the fear of GBS infection and saving the lives of infants on a global scale year on year.” 

You can find out more about St George’s research into tackling a broad range of infectious diseases through vaccination on the St George’s Vaccine Institute website.  

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