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Genetic data enlisted to radically shorten flu shot development

NEWS IN BRIEF — Posted May 27, 2013

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During a pandemic, synthetic vaccine technology could substantially reduce the time it takes to produce influenza immunizations, said a research article in the May 15 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

In 2011, scientists with pharmaceutical company Novartis developed a method of creating flu vaccine virus that skips a time-consuming step in the conventional process: shipping the flu strain to various laboratories. Instead, they designed an influenza vaccine using the viruses’ genetic sequence data (link).

They started with the gene sequences for the two flu proteins needed for the vaccine: hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. A custom software program calculated the sequences of needed oligonucleotides, which were then created. The genes were built enzymatically in cell-free reactions. Researchers had a vaccine virus ready within a week.

During the 2009 influenza A(H1N1) pandemic, it took six months from the start of the outbreak for manufacturers to develop, produce and distribute hundreds of millions of immunization doses, the study said.

The synthetic virus sequence was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus, which was a strain of influenza A(H7N9), also known as avian flu, triggered the proper immune response, the study said.

Before the vaccine development process can be used, it must be performed in a large-scale manufacturing setting, and regulatory agencies need to be convinced that the method is safe and effective, the study’s authors said.

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