An effective schistosome vaccine is a desirable control tool but progress towards that goal has been slow. Protective immunity has been difficult to demonstrate in humans, particularly children, so no routes to a vaccine have emerged from that source. The concept of concomitant immunity appeared to offer a paradigm for a vaccine operating against incoming larvae in the skin but did not yield the expected dividends. The mining of crude parasite extracts, the use of monoclonal antibodies and protein selection based on immunogenicity produced a panel of vaccine candidates, mostly of cytoplasmic origin. However, none of these performed well in independent rodent trials, but glutathione-S-transferease from Schistosoma haematobium is currently undergoing clinical trials as an anti-fecundity vaccine. The sequencing of the S. mansoni transcriptome and genome and the development of proteomic and microarray technologies has dramatically improved the possibilities for identifying novel vaccine candidates, particularly proteins secreted from or exposed at the surface of schistosomula and adult worms. These discoveries are leading to a new round of protein expression and protection experiments that will enable us to evaluate systematically all the major targets available for immune intervention. Only then will we know if schistosomes have an Achilles' heel.
The high level of protection elicited in rodents and primates by the radiation-attenuated schistosome vaccine gives hope that a human vaccine relying on equivalent mechanisms is feasible. In humans, a vaccine would be undoubtedly administered to previously or currently infected individuals. We have therefore used the olive baboon to investigate whether vaccine-induced immunity is compromised by a schistosome infection. We showed that neither a preceding infection, terminated by chemotherapy, nor an ongoing chronic infection affected the level of protection. Whilst IgM responses to vaccination or infection were short-lived, IgG responses rose with each successive exposure to the vaccine. Such a rise was obscured by responses to egg deposition in already-infected animals. In human trials it would be necessary to use indirect estimates of infection intensity to determine vaccine efficacy. Using worm burden as the definitive criterion, we demonstrated that the surrogate measures, fecal eggs, and circulating antigens, consistently overestimated protection. Regression analysis of the surrogate parameters on worm burden revealed that the principal reason for overestimation was the threshold sensitivity of the assays. If we extrapolate our findings to human schistosomiasis mansoni, it is clear that more sensitive indirect measures of infection intensity are required for future vaccine trials.
An effective vaccine against schistosomiasis mansoni would be a valuable control tool and the high levels of protection elicited in rodents and primates by radiation-attenuated cercariae provide proof of principle. A major obstacle to vaccine development is the difficulty of identifying the antigens that mediate protection, not least because of the size of the genome at 280Mb DNA encoding 14,000 to 20,000 genes. The technologies collectively called proteomics, including 2D electrophoresis, liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, now permit any protein to be identified provided there is extensive DNA data, and preferably a genome sequence. Applied to soluble (cytosolic) proteins from schistosomes, proteomics reveals the great similarity in composition between life cycle stages, with several WHO vaccine candidates amongst the most abundant constituents. The proteomic approach has been successfully applied to identify the secretions used by cercaria to penetrate host skin, the gut secretions of adult worms and the proteins exposed on the tegument surface. Soluble proteins can also be separated by 2D electrophoresis before western blotting to identify the full range of antigenic targets present in a parasite preparation. The next step is to discover which target proteins represent the weak points in the worm's defences.