CMV vaccine created with new mRNA technology could help prevent cytomegalovirus, a major cause of deafness in babies and children

Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are testing a new CMV vaccine to see if it can protect pregnant women from getting CMV and passing the virus on to babies in utero. Volunteers can sign up to test the vaccine against a common virus that few people know about.
April 11, 2023
Can a new vaccine help prevent cytomegalovirus or CMV, one of the most common causes of hearing loss in babies and children? Mom kisses baby's toes. Photo: iStock.
Can a new vaccine help prevent cytomegalovirus or CMV, one of the most common causes of hearing loss in babies and children? Photo: iStock.

One of the leading causes of hearing loss in babies and children might be prevented with a new vaccine thanks to technology developed to fight COVID-19.

A common virus — cytomegalovirus (or CMV) — can infect women during pregnancy. When this happens, the baby can be infected in the womb. About 40,000 babies in the United States are born every year infected with CMV. They often are sick at the time of birth and, even after recovery, about 20% of babies develop hearing loss in early childhood.

“It’s the most common cause of hearing loss in babies and young children,” said Dr. Myron Levin, a vaccine researcher who is a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Are you interested in participating in the clinical trial for a new proposed vaccine to prevent cytomegalovirus or CMV?

For more information or to participate:

Levin is leading a study of a new CMV vaccine at the Anschutz Medical Campus. The national clinical trial will test whether a proposed Moderna mRNA CMV vaccine can keep women of childbearing age healthy to prevent the spread of the virus to unborn babies.

The mRNA technology uses the same delivery system that Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech developed for the vaccines that were critical in preventing serious illnesses and deaths from COVID-19.

Since the COVID-19 vaccines emerged during the pandemic, vaccine makers around the world have been racing to develop and test mRNA vaccines to fight an array of viruses, hoping that the new vaccines might be more effective than traditional vaccines, such as the vaccines to prevent the flu.

Primary CMV infection not a problem for most

About half of the people living in the U.S. have already been exposed to CMV, especially people who grew up in big families or lived in densely populated settings. That’s because people who live in close proximity to one another are exposed to more viruses.

For adults, CMV usually causes no symptoms or what might feel like a minor case of the flu: a sore throat, body aches, exhaustion and a fever.

“Kids might not even complain of feel sick. Adults can feel crummy for a little while. They might have a little fever and their glands may swell up,” Levin said.

He emphasized that CMV infection can be a major problem for women of childbearing age since a woman who has never been exposed to the virus can contract it while pregnant, and then pass the CMV infection on to her unborn child.

New mRNA technology holds great promise in disease prevention

Levin has conducted clinical trials for decades and was part of the University of Colorado team that developed the first shingles vaccine in the U.S. Levin also helped with clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines for adults and children.

Levin said new mRNA vaccines hold great promise in combating many dangerous diseases,

“Vaccines makers are trying mRNA technology for everything from influenza to RSV, to Ebola to herpes. They’re even trying them for non-infectious diseases like cancer. Some cancer drugs work immunologically by destroying cancer cells, so mRNA vaccines could work together with other methods to help the body control a cancer,” Levin said.

The pandemic caused many terrible challenges and unnecessary deaths, but it also triggered a new era of discovery and progress in vaccine development.

“We want to find solutions for diseases for which we don’t currently have vaccines,” Levin said.

The new mRNA technology has enabled researchers and vaccine developers to quickly create new vaccines based on genetic sequencing, then begin testing vaccines.

“You can turn around a new vaccine within months. Along with fighting diseases for which we don’t have vaccines, we’re also looking for better versions of current vaccines like chicken pox and flu,” Levin said.

Preventing CMV and associated cases of deafness in infants and children could be incredibly valuable, as could safeguarding other vulnerable people from the virus.

Along with infants and those who are pregnant, CMV is also dangerous and can be fatal for people with depressed immune systems.

“In immunocompromised people, the immune system cannot stop the virus, which can keep growing and cause widespread infection – even death,” Levin said. “We have drugs to treat CMV, but CMV remains a major problem in transplant settings and for people getting certain cancer treatments.”

CMV spreads from person to person in bodily fluids, commonly in saliva and urine.

The CMV vaccine trial

The clinical trial at the Anschutz Medical Campus aims to test the CMV vaccine on about 100 women in Colorado who are of childbearing age and have children younger than 5. The study volunteers will be tested to see if they ever have been exposed to CMV. All potential study participants also will take a pregnancy test, and those who are pregnant will be excluded from the study since researchers do not test new vaccines on pregnant women.

The study participants will receive three doses of the CMV vaccine over time and will have their blood tested periodically to see if they have been exposed to CMV. Young children can be vectors for infections and can bring them home to their parents. That’s why Levin and fellow researchers will be looking for study participants who have young children to see if they can prevent the spread of CMV from mothers to their children.

“What happens is babies and young children go into daycare. Then they can get CMV from other kids. They might not be very sick at all. But if the mom gets it and she’s pregnant, then serious problems can develop,” Levin said.

Volunteers need to live in the Denver area so they can come to the Anschutz Medical Campus for vaccine injections and follow-up visits. Study participants receive financial compensation for their time and travel.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.