Vaccine Platforms Offer a Shield Against Diseases

When Edward Jenner introduced the first vaccine for smallpox in 1798, the world changed dramatically. For the first time, humans had a reliable defense against a disease that claimed millions of lives each year. Within 200 years, smallpox was eradicated entirely. At the same time, vaccines nearly eliminated once devastating diseases like polio and measles. 

person-holding-syringe
Person holding syringe

Despite these victories, the number of diseases for which we have vaccines is still very small. Much of the reason for this is that developing vaccines is difficult. Years of research can go to waste if a vaccine doesn’t work against the disease it’s meant to prevent. On average, it takes around 15 years to produce a new vaccine.  

 

That might not be fast enough. Each new vaccine is effective against just one type of bacteria or virus. But in the past 20 years, scientists have discovered more than 30 new infectious diseases. These new pathogens, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are appearing much faster than scientists can produce vaccines to stop them. 

virus
Virus

That problem has led scientists to try a different approach to vaccines. Instead of spending years creating one vaccine for one disease, researchers are now creating vaccine platforms that could be used to stop a wide range of bacteria and viruses. The goal is to dramatically cut down the time it takes to produce vaccines for new diseases. 

Photobioreactor in lab algae fuel biofuel industry. Algae fuel
Photobioreactor in lab algae fuel biofuel industry. Algae fuel

A vaccine platform is essentially an unfinished vaccine. It has all the components needed to confer immunity except for the genetic material of the bacteria or virus it is meant to stop. When a pathogen emerges anywhere in the world, scientists simply need to add a sample of it to the vaccine platform to create a new vaccine. That vaccine will still need to be tested to make sure that it is safe and effective. But the process of creating a new vaccine could take just a few months instead of years.  

 

Scientists are still in the early stages of creating reliable vaccine platforms. However, the coronavirus pandemic is putting this new technology to the test. The drug company Moderna, for example, was working on a vaccine platform when COVID-19 broke out. It took Moderna just six weeks to produce a potential vaccine and begin testing it on humans.

vaccination
Vaccination

Moderna isn’t the only company using a platform approach to speed up development for a coronavirus vaccine. A company called Inovio and another called CureVac were also working on vaccine platforms before the pandemic. Both developed potential COVID-19 vaccines just a few weeks after Moderna. 

 

It is still too early to know whether any of these platform-based vaccines will work against COVID-19. But if they do, much of the world could be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of next year. Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved. 

 

Just as important, these vaccine platforms could protect us against future disease outbreaks. Scientists think it is likely that coronaviruses that we don’t yet know about will cause more diseases in the future. If a vaccine developed from a platform in six weeks can stop COVID-19 in its tracks, the same vaccine platform could potentially be used to stop future pandemics before they start. 

Vaccine platforms could offer humanity a biological shield against emerging diseases and a method to rapidly respond to new outbreaks. In that sense, the transition to platforms could be as transformative as the development of vaccines more than 200 years ago. 

bacteria
Bacteria

Glossary

Genetic material – The biological code that bacteria and viruses use to infect humans.

 

Pandemic – A global disease outbreak.

 

Pathogen – A bacteria or virus that cause disease in humans.

 

Vaccine – A treatment that gives immunity against an infectious disease.

Grade level: 9.1 

 

Reading ease: 59.3 

Adalja A. A. 2020. Powerful New Technologies Are Speeding the Development of a Coronavirus Vaccine. Leapsmag. https://leapsmag.com/powerful-new-technologies-are-speeding-the-development-of-a-coronavirus-vaccine/. 

 

Adalja A. A., Watson M., Cicero A., Inglesby T. 2019. Vaccine Platforms: State of the Field and Looming Challenges. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/2019/190423-OPP-platform-report.pdf. 

 

Ricks D. 2020. Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine. Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. https://www.genengnews.com/insights/race-for-a-coronavirus-vaccine/

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Author

  • Michael Graw, Ph.D.

    Michael Graw is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Bellingham, Washington. He holds a PhD in oceanography from Oregon State University. Michael is excited about making scientific research easier to understand and sharing the stories behind the science. When not writing, you can find him climbing, skiing, and trail running. Writing for Smore gives Michael an opportunity to share the most exciting new developments in science today with tomorrow's scientists.