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Test-tube Immune Systems Can Speed Vaccine Development

FILE - A health agent prepares a vaccine during a campaign of vaccination against yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 25, 2017.
FILE - A health agent prepares a vaccine during a campaign of vaccination against yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 25, 2017.

New technology allows scientists working on new vaccines to combat infectious diseases to test their products' effectiveness on a model immune system in a laboratory, without putting the upgraded vaccine into humans.

Researchers have begun building model immune systems using human cells, and this lab technique should make early vaccine trials quicker, safer and cheaper, according to scientists in the United States and Britain involved in this novel approach. The technology also has the potential to be used to mass produce antibodies in the lab to supplement real immune systems that are compromised, or battling pathogens like Ebola.

A report announcing the new "in vitro booster vaccination" technique was published Monday in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal published by the Rockefeller University Press. The research project involved produced antibodies that attack strains of tetanus, HIV and influenza.

Selecting specific antibodies

When a pathogen invades the body, the immune system develops antibodies specific to that pathogen. The antibodies latch onto the pathogen and either flag it for destruction, disrupt the life cycle of the pathogen, or do nothing.

Before now, when scientists tried to get immune cells in the lab to produce antibodies, the cells would do so indiscriminately, producing all sorts of antibodies, not just the relevant ones. Now scientists are able to get the antibodies they specifically desire by using nanoparticles that connect antigens, the active parts of a vaccine, with molecules that stimulate the immune system.

"We can make these cells very quickly in vitro — in a Petri dish — to become antibody-producing cells," said a lead author of the new report, Facundo Batista. "This is quite important," he told VOA, "because until now the only way that this has been done is though vaccinating people."

Batista was one of a number of scientists involved in the study from the Ragon Institute, established in the Boston area by experts from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the goal of working toward development of an effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS. Others contributing to the new report were from the Francis Crick Institute in London and other institutions.

New technique saves time, money

The new laboratory technique will save time and money. After all the work of planning, funding and getting approval for a vaccine trial in humans, "you're talking at least about three years in a best-case scenario, if you have a very promising product," said Matthew Laurens, an associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Maryland who was not associated with the study. That lengthy process will now be shortened to a matter of months.

This can eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, long and costly trials, and fewer volunteer subjects will be exposed to potentially dangerous vaccines.

The ease of testing new vaccines will also allow scientists to tinker more and better understand how vaccines work. With better understanding, they may be able to develop more sophisticated vaccines that can be effective against more pathogens — those that differ as a result of genetic variations. This will be important in the fight against rapidly evolving pathogens like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Outside of vaccine testing, immune systems in laboratories can lead to greatly improved methods for the mass production of antibodies. Scientists have been trying to identify antibodies that can attack all strains of the Ebola virus; this new technology will improve their chances of developing an effective therapy.

Laurens, who studies malaria vaccine development at Maryland, called the research exciting.

"This would allow vaccine candidates to be tested very early and very quickly," he told VOA, "with rapid turnaround and reporting of results to either advance a vaccine candidate or tell scientists they need to go back and look for other candidates."