Life-changing research that will save babies lives worldwide

University of Melbourne and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) team leader Professor Julie Bines is committed to tackling one of the world’s leading causes of child illness and death – diarrhoea.

Professor Julie Bines and Indonesian colleagues

Caption: Professor Julie Bines (at right) with trial principal investigators for the new rotavirus vaccine RV3-BB.

Rotavirus is the most common cause of diarrhoea in infants and young children worldwide. Every child everywhere is vulnerable. Rotavirus is highly contagious and infants under the age of two are at greatest risk. Each year, rotavirus causes about 200,000 deaths in children around the world, and hospitalises hundreds of thousands more.

Before the vaccination was introduced in 2007 rotavirus caused approximately 10,000 hospitalisations among children under five years of age each year in Australia. That’s an estimated 100,000 children who have not had to be hospitalised.

Professor Bines and her team at MCRI are developing a novel oral vaccine, RV3-BB, to prevent rotavirus disease from the earliest possible opportunity – from birth. This work is ambitious and emerged from a shared goal set in the 1970s when rotavirus was discovered here, in Melbourne, by Professors Ruth Bishop and Ian Holmes.  

The World Health Organization now recommends that all infants receive a rotavirus vaccine. In Australia, infants receive a rotavirus vaccine as part of their routine immunisation schedule. The impact of the two globally currently licensed vaccines on severe rotavirus diarrhoea has been dramatic in countries that have introduced the vaccine.

However, approximately 70 per cent of the world’s children still lack access to a rotavirus vaccine. While cost of vaccines is an important issue for many countries, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, provides support for the poorest countries to introduce the vaccines. The current rotavirus vaccines are extremely effective in countries like Australia but the vaccines don’t seem to protect as well in low income countries where the risk of severe disease and death is greatest.

Professor Bines and the team from MCRI hope to tackle this challenge by developing a novel vaccine based on a newborn strain of rotavirus perfectly suited to deliver orally to babies at birth. This will ensure that all babies – in Australia and throughout the world – have an opportunity to receive the vaccine, particularly in low income countries where healthcare may only be accessed during childbirth.

Professor Bines entered into research because of many of the unanswered questions and unresolved problems affecting child health: “As a young doctor I travelled though Asia and Africa and it was confronting that babies and young children were dying from common diseases, like diarrhoea and respiratory diseases, that in Australia we take for granted are easily treated.”

“Surely we can do better. The RV3-BB vaccine, under development at MCRI has the potential to take the next important step in the prevention of rotavirus diarrhoea in the most vulnerable – babies from birth”.

The Melbourne team have been collaborating with colleagues from Indonesia’s Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta for the past 40 years with the aim of developing a rotavirus vaccine for Indonesia and the world’s children.

“One of my most memorable moments was at a celebration when more than 500 village midwives involved in the study jumped up and danced in a RV3 “flash mob” – it was wonderful seeing so many smiles and the pride these midwives had in being involved an effort to improve the future health of children under their care.”

This work will soon reach an important milestone, the completion of a clinical trial of the RV3-BB vaccine in Indonesian infants.

“In the 1970s clinicians from the RCH collaborated with scientists from the University of Melbourne to make one of the most important Australian contributions to global child health. Our aim is to build on this legacy by developing an effective rotavirus vaccine that prevents rotavirus disease from birth for the world’s children.”