AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Scientists at the University of Texas have developed two antibodies that could reduce the occurrence and threat of pertussis, which is a major cause of infant death in developing countries and has been increasing in the United States in the last 20 years.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, a respiratory tract infection that damages the immune system can causes the white blood cell count to rise to levels that can blood blood flow through the lungs.
Childhood vaccination generally prevents the disease in the United States, although as more parents have delayed or decided against vaccinations, whooping cough cases have increased during the last 20 years.
"Most of the babies who get sick haven't been immunized, so we hope to provide the immunity that they are lacking," said Jennifer Maynard, a chemical engineer in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, in a press release.
Based on the idea that lowering white blood cell counts in patients is key to defeating the infection, scientists developed two antibodies that can be used either together or separately -- one antibody binds to the pertussis toxin and prevents it from attaching to healthy cells and the second prevents the toxin from reaching its target inside a healthy cell it has invaded.
In tests with mice who were not infected with pertussis, the antibodies acted like a vaccine and prevented infection.
When the antibodies were given to baboons who were infected, the animals' white blood cell counts decreased and symptoms slowed or stopped. When combined with antibiotics, the scientists said the antibodies could kill the bacteria that causes pertussis.
"In the developing world, an estimated 200,000 babies die a year, and that's where we think we can have a really big impact," Maynard said. "If we can get our antibodies to these high-risk infants, we could potentially prevent the infection from occurring in the first place."
The study is published in Science Translational Medicine.