Inoculation from the Internet

Synthetic biology and the World Wide Web are teaming up to modernize our flu vaccines

Four years ago, the H1N1 swine flu emerged, launching the United States into its first influenza pandemic in 40 years. By the spring of 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that at least 43 million Americans had been infected with the virus. Even after this landmark flu season ended, its impact inspired Dr. Philip Dormitzer and his colleagues to make some radical changes to the way we create flu vaccines. When the H1N1 season reached its peak in late October of 2009, the vaccines were only just becoming available. In general, vaccines aren’t obtainable until about five or six months after a virus is first identified. Now, Dormizter, the leader of viral research at the private pharmaceutical lab Novartis, is using downloadable DNA sequences and custom-made synthetic viruses to give vaccine production a long-awaited speed boost.

“It enables a real merger of electronic and Internet technology with synthetic biology”

“It enables a real merger of electronic and Internet technology with synthetic biology,” says Dormitzer. According to him, this merger is destined to do more than merely speed up the process.

In order to make a vaccine, manufacturers must first have a seed virus—a starter culture from which larger quantities of virus can grow. Since about the 1960s, influenza seed viruses have been made in much the same way. First, a sample of the virus is taken from a sick person, cultivated, and then sent to the lab. There, the virus is inserted into egg cells in order to grow it in isolation from the other stuff it came with (like respiratory secretions). Then, scientists mate the virus with another virus that is faster growing and attenuated (weakened so it will get your body to build immunity without making you sick). If that works out, the resulting virus is sent to the vaccine manufacturer where it is adapted back to growing in mammalian cells before undergoing further pre-distribution tests and trials.

only genes specific to the strain of virus need to be downloaded

Prompted by the 2009 pandemic, Dormitzer’s Novartis team, in collaboration with the U.S. government, developed a new, faster version of this process that may also produce better quality vaccines. Their first step is the most straightforward update: instead of receiving virus samples in the mail, they’re downloading the necessary genetic code from the Internet. “Logistically, it’s easier to email somebody something rather than to have to worry about samples being properly stored, shipped, and received,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The code is then used to grow a synthetic virus in mammalian cells. This has two purported advantages: seed viruses grown in mammalian cells can produce egg-free vaccines (helpful for those allergic to eggs) and they have fewer mutations (which otherwise result from the adaptations necessary to switch from life in mammalian cells then egg cells then back to mammalian cells). After they’re grown, the best viruses are chosen and sent off to the manufacturer.

When Dormitzer’s lab went through a CDC-simulated bird flu pandemic in 2011, they got from download to finished seed virus in four days, four hours. By traditional methods this would take about a month or more.

If the idea of a vaccine born from broadband blows anyone’s mind, they should probably work on accepting it

In this process, only genes specific to the strain of virus need to be downloaded. The code for those genes is then plugged into an already established genetic “backbone” that most flu viruses have in common. This backbone is specially selected for its ability to quickly produce large amounts of virus and it can be already attenuated. This not only shaves more time off the overall process but it also allows for the selection of virus seeds from a larger pool. Dormitzer says this may lead to a better match between the strains of influenza we’re catching and the vaccines we’re using to avoid them.

If the idea of a vaccine born from broadband blows anyone’s mind, they should probably work on accepting it. On May 10, the World Health Organization released their list of candidate avian flu vaccine viruses. Two out of the three viruses are synthetic. This doesn’t mean that the avian flu vaccine will absolutely be made from a synthetic seed virus but it’s a definite possibility.

The novelty of this innovation may concern some but according to both Adalja and Dormitzer, the resulting vaccine is made of the same stuff as always. As soon as the next flu season, Dormitzer’s Internet-born vaccine may become commonplace, updating 50 years of slow and mismatched vaccine production in time to prevent the next flu pandemic.