Colds and flu

27 November 2012

German research points way to faster flu vaccines

An experimental vaccine based on messenger RNA (mRNA) protects animals against influenza and may one day offer an ultra-rapid way to develop new flu shots for humans.

An experimental vaccine based on messenger RNA (mRNA) protects animals against influenza and may one day offer an ultra-rapid way to develop new flu shots for humans, German scientists reported on Sunday.

Assuming it also works in people, the new approach could allow commercial flu vaccines to be designed and manufactured in weeks rather than months.

Making vaccines quickly is critical in fighting flu, particularly during a pandemic when health authorities and drug-makers are in a race to keep up with mutating strains of virus.

Flu vaccines have traditionally been produced in chicken eggs, a tricky and lengthy process. More recently some firms have started using animal cell cultures, with Novartis winning the first US approval for such a product. Both approaches, however, still involve virus cultivation, which can result in variable yields and production delays.

How it will work

The new vaccine developed by Lothar Stitz of Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut and colleagues uses a quicker approach. It is made solely of mRNA.

"The only thing we need is the sequence of the relevant genes," Stitz said. "It's a new option and it doesn't take long to do."

His team vaccinated mice, ferrets and pigs with an mRNA vaccine and found that the immune response was similar or better than that found with conventional vaccines. What is more, the new vaccines showed high efficacy in very young and very old animals, which can be a problem with current flu shots.

Outcome of the research

Reporting their results in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the scientists calculated that a completed vaccine could be produced within six to eight weeks of the genetic code of a flu virus strain being published.

In contrast growing vaccines in fertilised chicken eggs can take up to six months, while using cell cultures may reduce that by up to eight to 10 weeks.

Another potential advantage of mRNA vaccines is the fact that they do not need to be refrigerated.

A human vaccine based on the research is still years away, since extensive clinical trials will be needed to test safety and efficacy, and the job of taking the work forward now rests with CureVac, a privately owned biotech company.

CureVac, backed by billionaire German investor and business software firm SAP's co-founder Dietmar Hopp, is already developing a therapeutic mRNA vaccine for prostate cancer in human trials.

The firm also has a vaccine for lung cancer in development and is working on prophylactic vaccines against several unnamed infectious diseases in collaboration with Sanofi.

Sanofi is a major supplier of flu vaccines, along with Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline.

(Reuters Health, November 2012)

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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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