Spearheaded by Julien Pompon (UMR MIVEGEC), a molecular entomologist of infectious diseases, the FLAVIVACCINE project recently received funding from the European Union's "Horizon Europe" framework program for research and innovation (2021-2027). The aim of this project is to design an innovative vaccine against viruses called flaviviruses, responsible for many diseases around the world, such as dengue fever.
Vector-borne diseases caused by flavivirus-type viruses are emerging worldwide. They exist in the intertropical zone, but are emerging in France and Europe. Last summer, there were as many cases of dengue fever in France as in the previous ten years, and West Nile virus killed over 100 people in the European Union.
In a recent exclusive interview, Julien Pompon answers our questions.
What are the challenges of this project?
The aim of the project is to define a vaccine against flaviviruses, a group of mosquito-borne viruses which infect half a billion people every year, causing symptoms ranging the flu to fatal haemorrhage under certain conditions.
At present, there is no treatment, with the exception of a vaccine against yellow fever, which is effective, and a vaccine against dengue fever, which is not very effective and can aggravate symptoms in some cases. The figures speak for themselves: some 400 million people are infected with dengue virus every year, with potentially fatal consequences. The surge in flavivirus cases in the northern hemispheres is attributed to climate change and global transport. Diseases once confined to intertropical regions are now spreading, highlighting the urgent need for research into new vaccines to tackle these emerging threats.
Who are the partners and how are you working with them?
Project researchers will be working with partners across Europe, including Italy, Spain, Holland, Norway, UK and the USA. In addition, associate partners on every continent, including Thailand, Africa and South America, will be contributing to the project.
We are co-constructing in response to the health needs of the intertropical zone, where mortality is highest in the absence of treatment for these endemic diseases. However, mortality is only the tip of the iceberg, as the diseases also lead to work stoppages and long-term weakness.
What prior knowledge is your team building on?
The project builds on fundamental knowledge of the molecular mechanisms involved in flavivirus transmission, by identifying genes and proteins crucial to this transmission.What's also interesting about this project is that we started from a fundamental approach to understanding molecular mechanisms. By identifying these mechanisms, we will be able to find a target which could then be used to develop the vaccine.
What are the expected results?
The project has a clear objective: to have a candidate vaccine ready within 4 years, and then to move on to phase 1 clinical trials over the next four years. Phase 1 involves the first human trials to assess the vaccine's safety. The project therefore includes vaccine characterization, design and testing in various animal models. The aim is to generate all the data needed to start a clinical trial.
How does your research fit in with the science of sustainability?
This research fits in with the science of sustainability by offering a more sustainable solution than current methods of combating these diseases. Instead of disease-specific vaccines or repeated vector treatments, the pan-flavivirus vaccine technique could offer lasting protection against these current and future scourges.