The Great Protector
The importance of vaccinology in todays society is difficult to overestimate. As well as saving lives, vaccines help to reduce the impact of global pandemics. Robin Fearon looks at why Europe leads the way in vaccine science
Some ideas inspire mankind and others change the course of history. Immunisation was a history changing idea. The basic principle of teaching the bodys own immune system to resist disease by giving it small doses of pathogen has been around since 200 BC, but it was the English scientist Edward Jenner who invented the term vaccination, leading to a revolution in medicine.
His pioneering work to eradicate smallpox using the more benign cowpox virus (vacca is latin for cow) created an entirely new discipline. Vaccinology is now a core branch of medicine and Europe leads the way when it comes to vaccine science. According to the European Vaccine Manufacturers expert group, the EU accounts for two-thirds of global research and development and 90 per cent of worldwide production.
Tackling the big diseases
Treatments for diseases as diverse as malaria, tuberculosis and even HIV are constantly being refined through a network of industrial and academic laboratories across Europe. Pharmaceutical companies currently produce billions of vaccine portions per year. That production pipeline will continue to expand as science harnesses this centuries-old technology to create vaccines for the most problematic diseases, such as cancer, and newcomers such as avian influenza and swine flu.
Swine flu stunned medical authorities in February 2009, causing widespread panic as it spread from Mexico around the world in a matter of weeks. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former US Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb, said Americas response to the outbreak should have mirrored Europes. He was critical of US policy saying vaccine adjuvants (agents which increase the immune systems response to a vaccine) should have been used. “If we used adjuvants, we could have had four times the number of shots with the same raw material, he commented. “Shots can be made much faster using mammalian cells to grow vaccine and this process is already being used in Europe.
An evolving target
Ben van der Zeijst is a former scientific director of the Netherlands Vaccine Institute (NVI). “A sustainable society without vaccines is impossible, he said in his inaugural lecture to Leiden University. “It is nave to think that no new virus will ever appear again. Its something you have to be prepared for.
Global population levels, the ease of international travel and large urban environments influence the speed at which disease travels across the planet. Some 10,000 specialists in institutes like the NVI work globally with academics and industry to commercialise and distribute vaccines to industrialised and developing countries. The fact that diseases jump from one species to another, or simply evolve resistance, means that the target is always moving. “Viruses continue to transfer from animals to humans, the SARS virus being an example. The only truly effective way of combatting these viruses is with vaccines, says Professor van der Zeijst. “There is a need for a fast and smart method of developing vaccines, and this has to come from research.
Historically, the most successful vaccine ever devised is still that produced by Jenner more than 200 years ago because it led to the extinction of smallpox. “‘Nowadays there is a whole package of vaccines, explains Prof van der Zeijst. “New vaccines are continually being added. For a short time now, there has been a new vaccine against a particular form of cancer cervical cancer but there is still an urgent need for new vaccines such as for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria: the big three.
Targetting diseases at source wherever they originate is no longer a case of cooperative medicine, it is unmistakeable self-interest. “It is called global public goods for health, concludes Prof van der Zeijst. “It means that it is wiser to wage a small-scale war against a virus far away rather than allowing it to sweep across your own country.
Working in vaccinology
A vaccinologist’s job is to track global trends and devise vaccine strategies that provide a rapid response. Cell-based vaccines can now go from sequence coding for a protein to vaccine production in little more than a month. Meanwhile virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines are starting to hit the market, including the newly developed cervical cancer shot. VLPs are protein shells grown in plants or insect cells that look just like real viruses to the bodys immune system, but are much safer. “The particle exactly replicates the virus, but because there’s none of the genetic material that makes a virus active, it presents no danger, explains Polly Roy, a professor of virology at the UK’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the first VLP researchers.
Sumi Biswas, 26, studied microbiology at the University of Bangalore before taking her Masters in medical microbiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and gaining a Marie Curie Fellowship to study malaria vaccination. She now resides at the Jenner Institute in Oxford. “One developing area is in blocking vaccines that aim to stop transmission from humans to mosquitoes, and back to humans, she says. “Im looking at both recombinant protein and viral vector technology. Viral vector vaccines dont just introduce antibodies, they also induce T-cell response for diseases like malaria, HIV and TB, so we get better protection.
A vibrant field of research
Thanks to an increase in funding from initiatives such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, diseases such as malaria may soon be extinguished. “This is an exciting field to be in because there is lots of funding available and many different laboratories collaborating, says Sumi. “There is a lot of scientific discussion and sharing of results and that speeds up the process for achieving effective vaccines.
Add in the financial incentive and it creates a powerful motivator for anyone considering a career in vaccinology. Success on just some of the vaccines in development, particularly for Alzheimer’s and AIDS, would bring billions a year in sales. Emilio Emini, Pfizer Incs head of vaccine research sums it up neatly: “Even if a small portion of everything that’s going on now is successful in the next 10 years, you put that together with the last 10 years (and) its going to be characterised as a golden era.
About the author
Robin Fearon is features editor for the Veterinary Times and has also worked as editor for WhatsOnUK Guides as well as writing for the Daily Mirror, Tatler and the British Councils Postgraduate UK magazine.