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Newly Developed RNA-Based Vaccine Could Offer Lifelong Protection From the Flu 156

An anonymous reader writes "A new experimental flu vaccine made out of messenger RNA that may work for life is now being developed. German researchers said on Sunday that the vaccine, made of the genetic material that controls the production of proteins, protected animals against influenza and, unlike traditional vaccines, it may work for life and can potentially be manufactured quickly enough to stop a pandemic (abstract)."
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Newly Developed RNA-Based Vaccine Could Offer Lifelong Protection From the Flu

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  • Re:DO NOT WANT.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:00PM (#42100087) Journal
    Unfortunately, some of the more abusive low level employers still require a doctor's note anyway. One notorious telemarketing company in my town almost didn't give a dude his sick days because he didn't call in every day he was sick - the guy was in the hospital. It was only when the guy got the hospital itself off that they grudgingly gave him his time.

    Compare this to my current office, where if you so much as sneeze the boss looks at you with narrowed eyes and asks if you'd rather telecommute that day, rather than risk infecting the entire office.
  • Re:Great idea .... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by blueg3 ( 192743 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:33PM (#42100359)

    The guys that sell the current vaccines, sure. Their competitors, not so much. Permanent cures are good business because they're high-value products. You can charge a lot for them, you can get a lot of people to buy them, you can get the state to mandate them, you can get the state to pay for them, etc. The current flu vaccines aren't some endless gravy train -- they require a lot of work every year to actually get out the door and people (and governments) get pissy when you're late on delivery. A develop-once vaccine that's you can almost guarantee a sale of to each new person born is nice business, especially if it lets you screw your competitor out of yearly flu vaccine sales.

    The pharma industry isn't some monolithic ideal conspiracy. They have joint goals, but they're also made up of competing entities.

    If your claim was true, we wouldn't see companies continuing to sell vaccines and develop new vaccines that provide cures to diseases. But we do.

  • by slew ( 2918 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:38PM (#42100405)

    I can't really see how this technique could offer lifelong protection from the flu, the current encarnation currently does not and it's not clear how it would all work.

    First of all, the vaccine they developed is a "hardened" mRNA that encodes the manufacture of a particular varient one of the two proteins (hemagglutinin or HA) that are found on the surface of a flu virus (the other one is neuraminidase or NA). In this case they chose the recent H1 part of the H1N1 varient was recently going around. This mRNA tricks the host's own cells to produce this H1 protein which triggers the immune response. In contrast, the "traditional" flu shot just has HA and NA proteins (usually made from dead flu viruses grown in eggs, but sometimes made in labs) in it along with some other "stuff" like adjuvents, to amp up the immune response.

    Unfortunatly this particular vaccine is like traditional vaccines in that it primes the immune system to look for HA/NA proteins, and these are the flu proteins that mutate all the time, so it would just provide life-line protection for one particular strain (and some close relatives), kinda like the current flu shot.

    The current breakthrough was in "hardening" the mRNA so that it isn't dissolved in you blood. These researchers discovered a protein called protamine can bind with the mRNA so that it can make it into enough cells so that the cellular mechanims can transcribe it into the encoded protein into H1.

    There is some promise that this technique could be easily adapted to target part of the flu surface proteins that don't mutate as much (whereas the current technique is mostly about refining HA/NA proteins so might not be applicable to something else) but that lifelong protection from the flu using a technique like this seems like a dream. I don't think anyone knows how to do that yet, although many folks are working on it and most of them aren't just relying on just stimulating a human immune response.

    On the other hand, as with most hype, there is a kernel of something there. The current crop of modern flu-treatments (like tamiflu) target the NA part of the flu virus (technically they are neuraminidase inhibitors, so they interfere with part of the virus reproduction cycle). Unfortuantly the NA part is the faster mutating protein and there have been cases where mutation in the NA part of the virus can circumvent these modern treatments. The HA part mutates more slowly and as I mentioned above, this particular treatment has been steered to target the HA part. Who knows, maybe you'd get a vaccine with mRNA for every HA subtype they know about***. Of course that is until there is another mutation. I'm guessing that on this basis they've annointed this new thing as having the potential "lifelong" protection from the flu. As for how this would be significantly different than just giving someone a regular flu shot with all the known HA subtypes, I don't see it. Seems like a bit of hype to me compared to what other folks are working on (e.g., specific artificial antibodies that target all HA subtypes).

    *** AFAIK, there are 17 types of HA, although viruses that infect humans don't appear to have that many variations, so maybe you could get away with just H1, H2, H3, H5 (the ones known to infect humans).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:35PM (#42100979)

    The point of this new vaccine technology appears to primarily be one of cost. The idea is instead of vaccinating with dead / attenuated virus, or injecting viral proteins into someone to stimulate an immune response and thereby immunity, you can use RNA that will express the viral proteins in human cells (thus amplify the signal compared to injecting viral proteins directly) and get the immune system to generate antibodies against that viral protein. The RNA is designed to make only a part of the viral protein that is conserved, so that the antibodies will hopefully recognize a multitude of similar viruses - the reason that you have to get a flu shot every year is your body chose a site on a viral protein that is not conserved (which is most of it, thanks evolution), so last year's antibodies won't recognize this year's flu virus.

    But the nice thing about the system is (1) it is cheap to make RNA, especially compared to purified proteins, and (2) the RNA can be turned into a dehydrated powder and stored without any special conditions (i.e. cold and only for X amount of time), unlike virus- or protein-based vaccines. Cheaper vaccines means you can immunize more people for less money - but also animals like pigs which are a reservoir of flu virus. Biggest problem with getting rid of viruses like flu is they get to hide out in non-human hosts, mutate, and come back to infect people whose immune systems can no longer recognize the virus. Smallpox, which as far as we know only infected humans, couldn't do this, so once enough people were immunized, the virus had no one to infect and went extinct (outside of a couple research lab freezers).

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