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Researchers Think Synthetic Vaccine Could Eliminate Polio

  • Jessica Berman

FILE - A Pakistani health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Islamabad, Dec. 8, 2014.

FILE - A Pakistani health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Islamabad, Dec. 8, 2014.

The development of the oral polio vaccine more than 50 years ago is credited with virtually eradicating the illness worldwide. Now, researchers are looking ahead to the day when the disease no longer exists, even outside the laboratory.

To hasten that day, researchers in Britain are developing a synthetic polio vaccine. It works like one made from live, weakened virus, except it contains synthetic particles inside a viral shell.

The man-made vaccine mimics the structure of the polio virus, so it would be able to raise a strong immune response in humans. And because it does not contain the pathogen, there would be no risk of exposure, even in the case of an accidental release during the manufacture process.

Dave Stuart is a professor of structural biology at Oxford University and life sciences director at Diamond Light Source, a high-tech light science facility in which X-rays and spectroscopy techniques are used to make synthetic vaccines.

Benefit of man-made vaccine

Stuart said the man-made polio vaccine could eventually eliminate pockets of infection in nature as the microbe dies out.

"What we are trying to sort of think through is how do we get to the point where we can stop vaccinating," he said.

"If the vaccine is not a virus, then you have got the chance of not producing virus and not have virus circulating in the environment. It will be very difficult, but one would hope that eventually you would be able to eradicate the virus. And then one could stop vaccination, because then the virus would have gone completely," Stuart added.

The synthetic polio vaccine is modeled on a similar innovatation -- an effective, man-made vaccine to combat foot-and-mouth disease.

Stuart said researchers have assembled the components of the new polio vaccine, which is awaiting effectiveness studies. The vaccine would be easy to make quickly and to store, he added.

The work, funded by the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in California.