Chlamydia is infecting up to half of the koalas living in Queensland and New South Wales, causing blindness and infertility. Antibiotics exist, but they can cause a life-threatening imbalance in a koala’s gut health. TIA has supported research that aims to vaccinate up to 500 koalas as part of a proof-of-concept trial.
Professor Peter Timms from the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC) has seen koala populations decline in the past 10 years from habitat loss, dog attacks, road crossings and disease, such as chlamydia infection. Habitat loss has led the Federal Government to list koalas as an endangered species.
In those 10 years, Professor Timms (right) has been developing a chlamydia vaccine, conducting 10 small vaccine trials and demonstrating its efficacy.
The early trials showed the vaccine is safe – and triggered a strong immune response in koalas, including the production of antibodies that neutralised chlamydia.
Support from TIA’s Pipeline Accelerator voucher scheme in 2020 enabled Professor Timms to access the National Biologics Facility (NBF) and collaborate with Dr Judy Scoble, a Group Leader for Biologics Research and Development at CSIRO.
Access to NBF bioreactors, purification processes and team know-how assisted the UniSC research team in its endeavours to produce the vaccine proteins at high purity and quality for vaccine production. Dr Scoble and her team brought to the collaboration their extensive expertise in biologics production.
“It’s an important step, taking the research-grade vaccine we had produced in-house at UniSC and developing a process that will allow manufacture of a high-quality version so it can potentially be registered and produced by a vaccine company for wider commercial use,” Professor Timms says.
“The work at the NBF has produced useful findings that will assist in further work to produce the proteins suitable for use in the vaccine.”
Work is continuing, with Ceva Wildlife Research Fund committing $175,000 in March to support key stages of further developing the vaccine.
Professor Timms says the funding will help support a large field trial to evaluate the vaccine in wild koalas and enable further research into the immune basis of protection in vaccinated koalas.
“In addition, the Ceva Wildlife Research Fund will support a trial to compare and evaluate a high-quality version of the vaccine produced by an Australian vaccine manufacturer because, until now, we have been using a research version of the vaccine,” he says.
“Several trials will be needed to fully evaluate this industry version.”
Professor Timms says the aim is to ultimately produce a vaccine that can protect koalas from chlamydia, prevent existing infections from becoming worse, and potentially halt the spread of the disease. More information on the koala vaccine project is available here.
Plans for evaluating the vaccine include dosing up to 500 koalas being treated in South East Queensland wildlife hospitals and monitoring their responses.
“We know that the four major wildlife hospitals in Queensland alone care for more than 1,000 injured or diseased koalas each year,” Professor Timms says.
“For such widespread use, the vaccines need to be prepared as high-quality proteins using a process that contract manufacturers can use to produce at a greater scale.
“From there, we can move towards current good manufacturing practices that meet guidelines from agencies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration – and aim for veterinary product registration.
“The successful production of a chlamydial vaccine for koalas will have a major impact on rescuing koalas at threat from this serious disease.
“Despite our best efforts, many koala populations are declining and even becoming locally extinct. Unfortunately, we are losing the battle in many locations. Koalas need all the support they can get.”