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Hunt for vaccine yields new technique

Genome screen has wide promise

WASHINGTON -- Scientists hunting a vaccine to protect newborns from a severe infection not only found a promising candidate, they developed a new way to speed the search for vaccines against other hard-to-fight diseases, too.

It's a gene-searching technique that goes by the humble name ''multiple genome screen." But the research, led by Chiron Corp., elicited a ''wow" from the government's infectious disease chief.

''It opens up a new arena" in developing vaccines against multiple strains of diseases, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. ''This is a very, very elegant, potentially usable avenue to go after that whole concept of universal vaccines."

The first candidate: a possible vaccine against Group B strep, a germ that lurks harmlessly in many women's bodies but that can be fatal or brain-damaging if passed to their infants during birth.

So far, the experimental vaccine has been tested only in mice. But studies reported yesterday in the journal Science suggest it's the first candidate in two decades that might protect against all major strains of Group B strep. Chiron's lead researcher says the company is discussing with US regulators how to begin human testing.

Group B streptococcus, a cousin of the germ that causes strep throat, is found in up to 40 percent of women. It usually causes no symptoms. But it's the most common cause of blood infection and meningitis in newborns, sickening about 2,500 US newborns each year and kills 80 to 100.

There are numerous strains of the germ, and previous attempts at vaccines couldn't offer universal protection.

Researchers are now using the ''multiple genome screen" technique to identify the genes in multiple strains of E. coli, bacterial pneumonia, and the potential bioterrorism agent burkholderia.

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