Flu vaccine: A race against time
Millions of people become infected by influenza every year, causing thousands of deaths, which in turn costs billions for the economy. The production of vaccines is inefficient and they cannot be well supplied on a mass scale. Scientists in Vienna involved in the European Research Project FLUVACC are investigating a new approach - a vaccine in the form of a nasal spray.
Compared to the traditional intramuscular method of administrating vaccinations, the nasal spray will be much simpler and will not be associated with pain. Particularly for children, the process becomes less traumatic. The patient does not necessarily have to go to the doctor to get vaccinated. Furthermore, it seems by comparison of blood tests that this nasal vaccine is more effective and offers better protection. All these are welcomed factors that should increase the willingness of patients to get vaccinated. A goal of the project is to eventually increase the ratio of the vaccinated population with chronic diseases.
This vaccine has been produced using so-called reverse genetics. First, the researchers must identify the gene, and protein, that makes the virus invisible to the human immune system. After removing this protein, the vaccine is administered nasally. At this point the human cells recognise a virus invasion and react immediately by stopping the expansion of the virus.
When manufacturing vaccines, viruses are normally injected into chicken eggs. Because this method is slow and would not be able to meet the demand of a major epidemic, researchers are now looking at replacing the eggs with cell cultures. This approach has been used for the new nasal vaccine, which is an important improvement for those patients allergic to eggs, who would otherwise suffer an anaphylaxis shock.
Scientists from the BIA Separations laboratories in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, are also contributing to FLUVACC. A new technology has been developed for the last stage of production - purifying the vaccine. When they receive the vaccine in their laboratory, it is something like a soup with the viral particle (the base for the vaccine) and many other particles, some of which may be dangerous. Using a chemical reaction, which takes place within an "intelligent filter", the scientists extract the safe particles to be used for the vaccine. This method provides the patient with a safer and cheaper product.
Clinical tests have been held in Vienna. The results are promising, showing an improved protection and unusually few side effects. Researchers believe the new vaccine will not only be effective against the virus but also against eventual mutations.
The flu will always be present in one form or another, but through this research we can at least combat the virus with more capability and be better prepared for any mass outbreaks.