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With signs for flu shots festooning grocery stores, clinics and HR departments, the onset of flu season is heralded with as much fervor — if less enthusiasm — than Christmas.
Part of this is because the old days of vaccines meant getting mildly to very sick after being immunized, but still feeling better than getting the actual virus.
“You could give it to a human, get a mild disease and be immunized,” said Bertram Jacobs, a professor of virology in the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on a cousin of the smallpox virus. He has genetically engineered it as a vehicle against a number of infectious agents, bioterrorism threats, cancer and other viruses, including HIV.
Even then, a tough strain could crack through the immunization and infect the masses. But recent conversations with Jacobs, and other scientists at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences suggest a more promising future.
These days, genetic engineering is beginning to create vaccines that pinpoint the virus more precisely.
“Now, for just about every vaccine we’re trying to make, we can actually genetically engineer the virus to have it do what we want it to do,” Jacobs said. “We can use modern molecular genetics to change viruses in the way we want them to go so there are better vaccines, more effective vaccines. … We think we can genetically engineer vaccines so they’re a whole lot safer.”
Different strains of flu pop up each year, leading researchers and manufacturers to play whack-a-mole each season trying to develop the most effective vaccines. More universal vaccines are on the way that will wipe out a broad variety of flu, according to ASU molecular biologist Brenda Hogue.
Hogue studies how viruses replicate, assemble and impact host cells, ultimately contributing to disease. Her goal is to understand the molecular biology of a virus in order to identify targets for antiviral therapeutics and vaccine development.
“Structure-driven design of vaccines will likely become more common in the future,” Hogue said. “There is significant interest and need to develop more universal flu vaccines that protect people against a broad range of influenza strains and subtypes that circulate year to year. It would take some of the ‘guesswork’ out of our predicting the best formulation for the flu vaccine each season.”
Personalized flu shots aimed at children, the elderly and people with allergies were approved by the Food and Drug Administration two years ago. Research into that continues, but the necessity of immunizing huge populations trumps it, Hogue said.
"We can actually genetically engineer the [vaccine] virus to have it do what we want it to do." —Bertram Jacobs, ASU professor of virology.
“As the area of personalized medicine develops, possibly in the future it will be informative for some vaccines, but it is more likely that we will move more toward the development of a broad-based universal vaccine for influenza, since large populations need to be vaccinated each year,” she said.
The future looks good, Hogue said. Vaccine development is complicated and takes a long time, but there’s a long history of creating effective treatments and making improvements as scientists better understand immune responses to infections.
“We are in good shape, but we still have challenges with diseases like HIV and other diseases, especially in developing parts of the world,” Hogue said. “We live in a global community now, more than ever. We have seen new infectious agents, especially viruses, that have emerged recently. However, we are in a good position to deal with these as long as we have continuing support of our research infrastructure to improve on vaccine platform development.”
The human papillomavirus vaccine is the only genetically engineered vaccine in use today, but expect to see more on the market in future, Jacobs said.
“It’s taking what we’ve learned in a hundred years of vaccinology and using modern genetic technologies to get where we need to be,” he said.
For information about getting a flu shot at ASU Health Services locations, go to cfo.asu.edu/pandemic-seasonal.