New York Blood Center (NYBC) today announced groundbreaking findings toward the development of vaccines for the prevention of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infection. The findings were revealed in a new study on the effective design for a MERS vaccine, which was published in the most recent issue of the highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications.


MERS, a severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, has a mortality rate of approximately 36%. According to The World Health Organization, MERS primarily affects older people and individuals with weakened immune systems in the Middle East and other regions of the world.

Two NYBC researchers and pioneers in the field – Drs. Shibo Jiang and Lanying Du of the Laboratory of Viral Immunology at NYBC’s Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute – have made advancements on the development of subunit vaccines against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) since 2003, and MERS-CoV since 2013, publishing more than 30 studies on the infections. Drs. Jiang and Du proved that the receptor-binding domain (RBD), a key fragment responsible for virus binding to its receptor in the surface proteins of SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, is the most important target for development of vaccines, which laid the groundwork for recent studies.

Drs. Jiang and Du co-authored the Nature Communications study, “Introduction of Neutralizing Immunogenicity Index to the Rational Design of MERS Coronavirus Subunit Vaccines,” in collaboration with researchers from four medical research institutions: Co-senior authors Dr. Fang Li at the University of Minnesota, who led the study, and Dr. Yusen Zhou of the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, as well as researchers Dr. Chien-Te K Tseng of the University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa. NYBC visiting scientist Wanbo Tai, a Ph.D. candidate from China, was the key researcher performing the experiments.

In the study, Dr. Du, Dr. Jiang, and collaborators strategically developed a new effective design for a MERS vaccine. By introducing a new concept, “neutralizing immunogenicity index,” the scientists were able to evaluate the neutralizing immunogenicity (the ability to induce neutralizing antibodies) of an epitope (part of an antigen that is recognized by the immune system) in the RBD. Based on this strategy, researchers designed a new vaccine by masking “bad epitopes” (those that cannot induce neutralizing antibodies) and exposing “good epitopes” (those that can induce potent neutralizing antibodies).

“This novel strategy is essential in designing subunit vaccines that safeguard against not only SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, but also against other enveloped viruses, such as influenza virus, HIV, Ebola virus, and Zika virus,” Dr. Du said.

“The RBD-based subunit vaccine is effective and safe in humans because RBD generally does not induce harmful immune responses that may promote the pathogenesis or enhance virus infection in the vaccinated people,” Dr. Jiang said.

“NYBC is proud of our researchers’ dedication to advancing the fields of global health and bringing us one step closer to creating a vaccine to prevent this infectious disease,” said Christopher Hillyer, NYBC Chief Executive Officer. “For decades, NYBC’s Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute (LFKRI) and National Cord Blood Program (NCBP) have been at the forefront of new blood-related products, research and therapies. The advances we have announced continue that proud tradition.”

“Through our recent partnership with Innovative Blood Resources (IBR) of St. Paul, our collaboration on this study with the University of Minnesota, and other partnerships and initiatives, NYBC continues its role as a national leader in research, development and blood distribution,” said NYBC Chairman Howard Milstein. “We continue to make significant strides in our efforts to combat infectious diseases worldwide, and look forward to a day when viruses, like MERS-CoV, are completely eradicated.”