Today, Vaccines are the most effective means of minimizing the impact of infectious diseases on the human population with standard vaccines consisting of dead or weakened pathogens or proteins from the viruses themselves. Allowing your body to build up a defense against the infection, should you ever be hit by one. Currently, it takes anywhere from 7 to15 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a vaccine.
Soon, however, vaccines consisting of DNA or RNA poise to make inroads in the fight against viruses or bacteria. These vaccines promise many advantages over today’s vaccines. They are faster to manufacture and have been in the works for decades, but only recently entering clinical trials. Technologies in the field of Genomic Vaccines enable researchers to study an organism’s entire set of genes and proteins simultaneously, instead of working with only one gene or protein at a time. By doing this, researchers could identify genes or proteins that play a vital role in a pathogen’s ability to infect and the host’s immune system response, and ultimately lead the way to better and more effective vaccines.
Current vaccines work by allowing our immune system to recognize a foe, something that shouldn’t be there. When the vaccine is introduced into our bodies, our immune system learns to recognizes that those specific bits of proteins, called antigens on the surface of that pathogen are foreign to our bodies and attacks them the next time it encounters them. While these conventional vaccines have been able to eradicate polio and prevent diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella, they do have their disadvantages. As there is still a risk of developing the virus from the vaccines themselves.
Genomic vaccines are different; they take the form of DNA or RNA that encodes desired proteins. Genomic vaccines trick the immune system into thinking a real pathogen has infected it. Thus Antibodies are produced without risk of infection and have a higher chance of being more effective than conventional vaccines. These genomic vaccines enter cells, which then churn out the selected proteins. Compared with manufacturing proteins in cell cultures of large batches of chicken eggs, producing the genetic material should be more straightforward and less expensive.
Furthermore, a single vaccine can include the coding sequences for multiple proteins. Moreover, it can be changed readily if a pathogen mutates or properties need to be added to the vaccine.
The WHO, for instance, revises the flu vaccine annually, but at many times the immunization they choose misses the mark of the viral strain that causes the main problem when flu season comes around. This is because there isn’t just one strain of the flu virus going around. It’s a dice roll. If the experts choose wrong, then the vaccine you took won’t be effective against the flu that’s going around.
Soon, however, researchers could sequence the genomes of the circulating strains and produce a vaccine in months instead of years. Genomic vaccines also enable a new twist on a vaccination approach known as passive immune transfer, where antibodies are delivered instead of antigens. Scientists can now identify people who are resistant to a specific pathogen, isolate the antibodies that provide that protection and design a gene sequence that will induce a person’s cells to produce those antibodies.
In the meantime, researchers are working to improve the technology behind Genomic Vaccines—for example, by finding more effective ways to get the genes into cells and by enhancing the stability of the vaccines in heat.
Of course, we all know how the zombie apocalypse starts, so fingers crossed.