UT professor hits breakthrough in whooping cough research

A professor at UT Austin has hit a breakthrough in protecting babies from pertussis, also known as whopping cough. (Credit/Amanda Brandeis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Each year pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, takes the lives of nearly 200,000 children around the world. The dangerous disease is on the rise around the country, and here in Texas.  Last year, Texas reported more than 3,900 cases of Whooping Cough, up 79 percent from the year before.

The highest risk hits children who haven’t been vaccinated. However, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin is a developing a whopping cough treatment to protect babies even after they’ve been exposed.

“For a lot of us who go into science, we want to make a difference in some way,” said Jennifer Maynard, associate professor of chemical engineering at UT Austin. “We want to make the world better.”

She and her team have devoted years to stopping the worldwide killer.

“Pertussis is a vaccine-preventable disease and it’s amazing that in 2014 babies are still dying from a disease which we have a really good vaccine,” said Maynard.

Adults can unknowingly pass the infection to babies, and babies get the sickest. They can be vaccinated at two months, four months and six months, however, some may not be fully protected until their third vaccination. Some babies aren’t vaccinated at all. That is where Maynard’s research comes in. They’ve developed two antibodies which work together to block the functions of one of the major toxins, treating symptoms of the infection.

“For the babies who are at risk, they don’t have a fully developed immune response yet, so this is a way to give them an instant immunity. We have antibodies purified, we’ve characterized them, they’re sterile, they’re really clean, we can inject those into a baby and it’s as if the baby were fully immunized.”

Their primary target is babies who are very sick, under six months old. They hope to deliver the treatment worldwide.

Graduate student Edith Acquaye, plans to take what she’s learned in the lab back to her home country of Ghana.

“It’s very exciting,” said Acquaye. “Starting a project and seeing it get to completion is really nice, and being part of the whole process is really exciting.”

“It’s wonderful because your science has this multiplicative effect where you can discover something and it can affect many people,” said Maynard.

The research has successfully been tested in pre-clinical trials. Next they will apply for FDA approval, and then head into clinical trials. The team hopes to have it on the market in a few years, worldwide.

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