Researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry are testing a new vaccine against a little-known but widespread herpes virus. Unlike its family members that cause cold sores, chicken pox and shingles, cytomegalovirus or CMV typically doesn’t cause any symptoms in the more than half of adults who are infected with it by the age of 40.
The virus becomes problematic when contracted by pregnant women, who can pass it along to their unborn children. Babies who are infected with CMV before birth – called congenital CMV – can have small heads, hearing loss, developmental disabilities, become very sick and even die, according to Robert F. Betts, M.D., the infectious disease specialist who is leading the new vaccine trial.
Betts’ team is recruiting 20 healthy volunteers to test the safety, tolerability and the body’s immune response to an investigational vaccine to protect against CMV. Currently, no vaccine is available, but the Institute of Medicine has ranked the development of such a vaccine a highest priority because of the lives it would save and the disabilities it would prevent.
“Congenital CMV is a societal problem. A baby born with it may require lifelong care, which is an expensive undertaking,” noted Betts, who has conducted infectious disease research at the medical school for more than 25 years. “Even more importantly, that child’s life is not what it could have been had he or she not gotten infected while in the womb.”
The goal in developing an effective vaccine is to dramatically reduce the frequency of the virus and the burden on society. In the future, if this or another vaccine proves safe and effective, all women of childbearing age could be tested for the virus and offered the vaccine before becoming pregnant.
In the United States, congenital CMV is five to seven times more common than congenital rubella (German measles). About one in 150 children is born with congenital CMV infection, and of these children approximately one of every five will develop permanent problems such as hearing loss or developmental disabilities. Infants and children who are infected with CMV after birth rarely have symptoms or problems.
High concentrations of the virus are found in semen, so infection and pregnancy can occur simultaneously. Having a second baby is another common reason why congenital CMV infection occurs, as children at daycare or in school get the virus (probably by swapping saliva with other children) and bring it home to mom who is pregnant with baby number two.
Merck & Co is working to develop a vaccine to prevent CMV and is funding the research at the Medical Center. Betts receives payment as a consultant from Merck.
If you are over the age of 18, in good health and not pregnant you may be eligible to participate in this research. During the trial, participants will receive real vaccine or a placebo. To see if you qualify for a study screening, including a blood test to confirm your CMV status, please contact the Infectious Disease Research Group at 585-275-0123. Volunteers will be compensated up to $655 for their time.