Elizabeth Newman

If there’s a common comment on McKnight’s news stories based around research, it’s someone saying, “Sheesh! I can’t believe they needed to do a study to find out what we already knew. Tell me something I don’t know.”

Of course, clinical trials, testing, proving a hypothesis, and making sure we don’t equate correlation with causation are all part of proving, or not, a theory: These are the most basic parts of science. But at the same time, I am sympathetic to how it can feel as if truly innovative work is geared towards other parts of the healthcare industry.

That’s why I was happy to get to chat with University of Chicago Booth School of Economics students and their medical partners recently about their biotechnology companies. The groups were all hoping to receive funding through the University of Chicago Innovation Fund, which later announced its plans to invest up to $575,000 into three companies.

All the groups were impressive, with companies that had developed everything from using software to help address speciality clinic visit gaps to new therapy for kidney stones. However, one of the winners, ImmunArtes, struck me as the most likely to gin up excitement — and maybe controversy — in the long-term care crowd.

The company’s objective is to develop a vaccine to block human colonization and prevention infections with Staphylococcus aureus. Infections with Staphylococcus aureus and its antibiotic-resistant MRSA strains result in around $100 billion in healthcare costs and result in about 3.8 million infections annually, the company said.

Chief Medical Officer Olaf Schneewind, M.D., Ph.D., told me that nursing home residents have around a 3% rate of MRSA infection, compared to 1% in the general population. This is not a surprise. Obviously, nursing home residents are older with compromised immune system, and we also know hygiene in some of our facilities is lacking. Not to mention that since MRSA develops from antibiotic resistance, seniors will have collectively had more antibiotic exposure.

If a vaccine could be developed for adults, it could potentially save nursing homes a lot of money, not to mention reset some of our infection control protocols. Schneewind points out that all healthcare facilities are purchasing and consuming tons of infection products to stop staph, as 22% of hospital-acquired infections are MRSA-related.

“It’s the No. 1 bug; nothing else is even close,” he said.

Being allowed to cut back on the amount of, say, dispensers with hand sanitizers, should make any financially savvy administer interested in ImmunoArtes’ work. Obviously nursing homes would still have basic hand hygiene protocol of handwashing with soap and water, and using gloves and gowns, not to mention appropriate cleaning of instruments.

But the amount of money being poured into different types of products to stop MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant illnesses in a nursing home is not a small number. It’s all about cost-benefit analysis for administrators: One estimate found that each person infected with MRSA costs around $12,000 for a hospital. Even if your facility ships out the resident to the hospital and avoids most of the price tag, there’s no way around that MRSA diagnosis costing you money at the moment. A vaccine could potentially wipe that away.

To be clear, this vaccine is at least eight years away, a fast timeline for vaccine development but slow to those who want it Right Now. ImmunoArtes is hoping to start a Phase 1 trial in 2020 and potentially debut its vaccine in 2024. In addition to the $175,000 it just received from the Innovation fund, the team will be looking for angel investors, government grants and possibly military funding.

The controversy for the LTC industry, of course, is whether this would be a vaccine adult employees should be encouraged to get, or whether it should become mandatory. One facet I brought up with the ImmunoArtes team was the reluctance of long-term care folks to trust or receive vaccines, based on the low rates of flu vaccines. No doubt any new vaccine on the market will provoke comments around “big pharma” or how to be suspicious of anything new.

I urge you to remember, when you hear those comments and are flogged by people sending you phony studies, to remember what we know and have documented. MRSA results in people generally having a fever above 101.3 degrees, a fast heart and respiratory rate and sometimes an altered mental state. Sepsis can result, causing difficulty breathing and more delirium, with sometimes the organs shutting down.

I’m not sure any of us would choose MRSA as the disease we want to usher us out of the world. Let us not be afraid of a vaccine that could make it a thing of the past.

Follow Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.