LOW-ENERGY electrons could enable industry to produce more effective vaccines more quickly according to research coming out of Germany.
Vaccines are made using inactivated pathogens – essentially the virus you want to protect against is neutralised and injected into the body to prompt the immune system to build up its defence. Currently, toxic chemicals – typically formaldehyde – are used to inactivate the virus. This method has its disadvantages, explain scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute. Firstly, the toxic chemical has to be used in diluted volumes, meaning the inactivation can take a long time – for example, up to two weeks to neutralise the poliovirus.
Furthermore, formaldehyde alters the proteins on the surface of the virus against which the immune system produces antibodies, reducing the effectiveness of the vaccine.
The team at Fraunhofer says its method of using low-energy electrons inactivates pathogens in milliseconds by destroying their nucleic acids rather than their telltale proteins. While this method of producing more effective vaccines more quickly is a tantalising draw for drug producers, scaling up the process for use in industry has its challenges, the team explains.
Low-energy electrons will penetrate less than 1 mm into a liquid containing the virus that needs inactivating. The team is looking at two methods that would allow it to present thin layers of liquid for irradiation. The first involves putting the liquid in bags while the second involves running a solution over rollers.
The scientists hope that clinical trials for vaccine production using these methods can begin in around five years. They add that the method may have other uses too: 'Using electron irradiation, we can also inactivate hazardous material without destroying it,' says Sebastian Ulbert, head of the working group at Fraunhofer IZI. For example, blood samples taken from people infected with the Ebola virus could be prepared in such a way that they can be examined safely in ordinary laboratories.
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