A new method of vaccine production currently under development will give our bodies detailed instructions on how to make antibodies to fight against disease.
At least one good thing came out of last year’s Ebola crisis: a radical new way to produce vaccines, using the human body as a biofactory. The new project was introduced at the “Wait, What? Technology Forum” hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Traditional vaccines are produced using other organisms, a laborious process with limited yield and effectiveness. For example, when H1N1 swine flu broke out in 2009, it took months for researchers to grow the appropriate vaccines in mouse ovaries until there was enough to administer to patients. Even then, the vaccine didn’t work 100 percent of the time — the human body’s immune system is supposed to react because of the vaccine’s similarity to the virus. But only around half the people who received the H1N1 vaccine developed the appropriate antibodies, according to Colonel Daniel Wattendorf, a clinical geneticist at DARPA. All in all, the H1N1 vaccine only managed to save 1.6 percent of the 60 million Americans who received the flu shot.
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Now, scientists are looking at a different way to create vaccines, which will bypass that cumbersome middleman and have a higher success rate. The insight came from the Ebola outbreak, when Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the virus and became the first American to be treated back in the US thanks to a plasma transfusion from another patient. In turn, he donated his own plasma to other Ebola victims, which supplied them with plenty of antibodies that had already proven effective against the virus. The patients recovered much more quickly, since they didn’t have to wait for their own inexperienced immune systems to deal with the disease.
Since it would be impractical to rely on recovered patients who are willing to donate their plasma, DARPA scientists are developing a method that reproduces this effect on a mass scale, so that “the body becomes the bioreactor,” as stated by Wattendorf. They will extract antibodies from someone who has already beaten off a virus and pit the antibodies against living viruses in a Petri dish. Then they can analyze the structure of the most promising antibody and decode the genetic sequence that a cell would use to assemble the antibody.
Once they have the correct gene, geneticists can copy it into a ring of DNA that the patient’s body can use as an instruction manual for building antibodies, even if he or she has never been exposed to the disease. A single injection of the antibody-DNA into the patient’s muscle cells will rev up his cellular machinery and produce antibodies within a couple days. It’s the same technology used to genetically engineer bacteria and yeast and teach them how to make useful things like insulin and other drugs.
Of course, human bodies are a bit more complicated than single-cellular yeast, so it will take a lot more research and experimentation before the technique is perfected. Various companies are already testing the method to create better flu vaccines with “1,000-fold more potent protection than has ever been reported,” said Wattendorf. The technique has already proven successful at immunizing smaller animals, but researchers need to figure out if they can generate a therapeutic dose sized for humans. Fortunately, the project has already received funding for early-phase testing in people. Once these new genetic vaccines are fully developed, we can finally banish Ebola and influenza to pathological history.