Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have developed a new kind of vaccine that can be customized to various diseases and manufactured within a week.
That would mean that it could be used for very fast responses to sudden outbreaks of disease, such as Ebola, and that it might allow scientists to produce flu vaccines with much higher effectiveness rates. The current method of making flu vaccine usually requires growing the virus inside eggs, which takes months. As a result, health officials must make an educated guess many months before flu season about which strains are likely to circulate. Some years, those educated guesses are off.
The experimental breakthrough was announced in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.
How it works
The nuts and bolts of this new vaccine technology are extremely complex, but it essentially* works like this:
Many standard vaccines work by introducing into our bodies weakened or inactivated ("dead') pathogens (viruses, bacteria, etc.), or sometimes proteins that are made by the pathogen. Our immune system reacts to the pathogen or proteins by making antibodies so that if we are ever exposed to the disease, our body can fight it off before it makes us sick. These vaccines have come a long way in terms of safety and effectiveness, but they can often require multiple doses and/or booster shots to be effective.
What makes the MIT vaccines different is that they have found a way to cluster together messenger RNA -- that part of our genetic code that tells cells what proteins to make. Rather than introducing already-made proteins, or whole viruses or bacteria, this RNA cluster would tell our body's cells to make a particular protein. Our body would produce both the protein and the antibodies against that protein (and therefore the pathogen).
And the best part about this is that the RNA is totally programmable. When a new disease outbreak occurs, researchers could use this process to quickly develop a vaccine to target that specific pathogen, such as Ebola or Zika.
Why it's important
The project was led by Jasdave Chahal, a postdoc at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and Omar Khan, a postdoc at the MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. The two also hope to create vaccines for Zika virus and Lyme disease.
So far, MIT reported, the engineering team has used this technology to design vaccines against Ebola, H1N1 influenza, and Toxoplasma gondii, a relative of the parasite that causes malaria. All the vaccines were 100 percent effective in mice.
The vaccine is designed to be delivered using an intramuscular shot, and according to MIT, the vaccines for all three pathogens tested so far—Ebola, H1N1 and Toxoplasma gondii—stimulated both kinds of immune response in mice, a T cell response and antibody response. The mice that received as little as a single dose of vaccine showed no symptoms after they were exposed to the pathogens.
“Typically a vaccine becomes available long after the outbreak is over,” Chahal said, according the MIT release. “We think we can become interventional over the course of a real outbreak.”
*Warning: To make the science more accessible for those without a lot of science background, we are oversimplifying quite a bit.
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