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OCUVAC - Ocular Vaccines

  • Head: Associate Professor Dr Talin Barisani-Asenbauer, Uveitis Outpatient Clinic at the Vienna University Clinic’s Department of Ophthalmology
  • Grant recipient: Medical University of Vienna
  • Partners: Bird-C GmbH | Medical University of Vienna, Institute of Specific Prophylaxis and Tropical Medicine

Vaccines against blindness

Under the supervision of ophthalmologist Talin Barisani-Asenbauer from the Medical University of Vienna, the Laura Bassi Centre OCUVAC researches a vaccine based on phantom bacteria against trachoma, an eye disease which has cost over 10 million people in developing countries their eyesight.

In Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and central Australia more than 500 million people are at risk of being infected with trachoma. At an advanced stage this chronic eye inflammation leads to scarring of the cornea and blindness. Trachoma is primarily caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. It may be caught via smear infection, with flies also acting as carriers of the pathogen. The risk of going blind increases every time a person is infected. Women are three times more in danger since they keep getting infected by their children. Due to their impaired vision they can no longer go to work. As they are usually the providers for their families, this leads to the impoverishment of large sections of the population.

Bacterial Ghosts (BGs) as vaccine carriers

The research project OCUVAC works on the development of a trachoma vaccination to be administered as eye drops. As a carrier system the vaccine uses so-called bacterial ghosts, i.e. empty bacterial shells. This platform technology has been developed by the biotechnology company BIRD-C and is protected by international patents. The basic principle behind it is that controlled formation of a hole in the cell wall of gram-negative bacteria brings about cell death, i.e. the cell contents of the bacteria come out and the empty bacterial shells, which are externally intact but not viable, remain. Then specific antigens against pathogens can be put in these shells. That way, bacterial ghosts can become carriers of vaccines, but they can also be filled with medicine. Due to their perfect size and form they are recognised and absorbed by the body cells. One of the major challenges of this project is to identify antigens that allow the researchers to develop a vaccine that can be used all over the world. For both the pathogens and the infected people show regional genetic differences. Therefore, OCUVAC will carry out trans-continental studies with partners from Africa and Asia. A vaccination in the form of eye drops has many advantages: it can be stored without refrigeration, production is economical and administering it does not require trained personnel. But industrialised countries profit from this research, too, because the methods developed in the course of the research project can be applied for other eye infections (e.g. for wearers of contact lenses) and ocular allergies.

Ethically committed ophthalmologist

Talin Barisani-Asenbauer has been Head of the Uveitis Outpatient Clinic at the Vienna University Clinic’s Department of Ophthalmology since 1994. Uveitis is a frequently chronically recurring eye inflammation caused by various autoimmune diseases and infections. Barisani-Asenbauer completed her medical studies and her residency in Vienna, specialising in the field of ocular inflammation and infection. She has been active in international research cooperation projects and currently works on projects in the fields of “Geographic Medicine” (investigating the development, treatment and prophylaxis of transnational diseases) and gender research in ophthalmology. The clinical doctor and basic researcher qualified as a university professor has Armenian roots. During study visits to the USA she completed several courses with a focus on “Ethical Medicine”. Within the scope of the Laura Bassi Centre of Expertise headed by her she can implement these principles which are a matter of concern to her. “OCUVAC helps us in our efforts to ensure that research in developing countries is carried out according to ethical principles. However, the Laura Bassi Project also constitutes a great opportunity for Austrian researchers: this is the first time that a promotion programme allows us to do innovative science at the interface with industrial research while at the same time providing us with comprehensive further training.”