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Developing vaccines requires sophisticated scientific study, and new approaches promise to speed up this crucial process. With the world in the grips of an expanding pandemic from the coronavirus known as COVID19, a faster vaccine development time will save more lives and significantly alleviate pain and suffering around the world.
Viruses need hosts such as people and animals to reproduce. They cannot do this on their own. To survive, a virus must reproduce itself, and to do so, it must inject its genetic material called DNA or RNA into a host cell. Once inside a cell, the information in the virus’s DNA takes over the normal functioning of a cell and turns it into a virus factory, making thousands of copies of itself. Often so many new viruses get made that the host cell simply bursts open, killing the cell and releasing thousands of new viruses to infect other cells and people. Bursting cells result in damage to organs such as the lungs, liver, and digestive tract. A viral invasion prompts the body’s immune system to leap into action in several ways, including driving up its own body temperature into a fever to disable the virus and stimulating various immune cells such as natural killer cells attack and destroy the virus. In a bad infection, the virus replicates faster than the immune system can keep up leading sickness and even death.
Viruses cause diseases such as HIV, polio, Ebola, SARS, and many more. Apart from the frontline of the immune response such as fever and natural killer cell response, the body can develop antibodies that tell specialized immune cells exactly what invading virus to attack to defend the body. Moreover, once antibodies against a disease get formed, the body can remember the attacking virus and kill it off the next time the virus arrives, stopping reinfection in its tracks.
Vaccines represent a genuinely massive breakthrough in public health that has brought an immeasurable reduction in human death and suffering around the world. For the United States alone, “The CDC estimates that vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years.” (cdc.gov) Vaccines take advantage of the immune system’s ability to remember foreign invaders. Vaccines help teach the body about foreign invaders without the body having to suffer through the first round of getting sick. Some vaccines use a weakened or disabled virus that does not make a person sick, but it allows the immune system to develop antibodies and the memory of a harmful virus. Other vaccines present just a piece of the virus. Such vaccines may require a series of immunizations to train the immune system entirely.
As noted earlier, viruses need living cells in which to multiply and grow. Traditional vaccines that use dead or disabled viruses first grow in chicken eggs, which then get harvested for use in vaccines. To put it in perspective, one egg produces enough of a virus for one dose of a vaccine, and the process takes about six months from start to final vaccine ready for injection in a person. (thevaccinereaction.org) That amounts to needing billions of eggs to vaccinate the world. Such a process works but remains quite slow and difficult to scale.
A new, faster way to make vaccines skips the steps of growing up a virus in eggs, killing or disabling the virus, and preparing it for human dosage. The new type of vaccine sends instructions directly to human cells, telling them to make not the whole, dangerous virus but specific virus proteins that will train the host’s army of immune cells to recognize and kill the dangerous, disease-causing virus. The instructions come in the form of genetic instructions called RNA, which is a transient, degradable form of DNA. RNA vaccines have shown positive effects in animal models against diseases such as Zika, Ebola, and influenza. (nature.com) Moreover, RNA can be synthesized instead of grown in eggs, shaving months off the manufacturing process and significantly scaling up the output.
The emergence of the COVID-19 virus from China in late 2019 has led to a global pandemic infecting hundreds of thousands of people and killing thousands. The development of vaccines has led to significant victories in the fight against infectious diseases such as polio, smallpox, and measles, among others. Vaccines use weakened or disabled viruses to teach the body’s immune system to recognize and prepare for the invasion of disease-causing germs. The immune system can then quickly ramp up defenses to kill invading viruses before they can overwhelm the body. As miraculous as vaccines appear, they take millions of chicken eggs and months to make at the scale to inoculate an entire populous. Recent breakthroughs in vaccine research show a promising new type of vaccine called RNA vaccines that prepare the body’s defenses for disease-causing viruses but skip the entire virus production in eggs, shaving time and cost off the whole process.
Note: As of the publishing of this blog, Moderna, a Cambridge, MA-based company has already shipped the first RNA vaccine for COVID19 for testing in healthy patients (modernatx.com).
Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.
You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.