New Vaccines on the Horizon
Vaccines are hailed as one of the most important public health achievements of the 20th century. New innovations in vaccine technology and new information about how the immune system works to protect us make this an exciting time in the field of vaccine research and development.
In 2012, there were nearly 300 vaccine clinical trials in progress or being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 170 of these vaccines are for infectious diseases. In 2002, the Perspective in Health Magazines made the following predictions:
- By 2005, significant progress toward, if not achievement of, the global eradication of polio.
- By 2010, vaccines against meningitis, pneumonia, rotavirus-caused diarrhea and human papilloma virus (the cause of cervical cancer).
- By 2015, vaccines against AIDS, malaria and pulmonary tuberculosis, and the global control of measles.
- By 2025, the ability to protect infants against at least 20 pathogens throughout their lives.
The first two have already been accomplished! While there is a concerted effort to end measles, the goal to achieve worldwide eradication of measles by 2010 has been interrupted by parents in Europe and parts of the United States choosing not to vaccinate their children leading to higher infection rates.
To protect more children, scientists and doctors are working hard every day to develop new vaccines.
Vaccines against the “big three” – AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) – are on their way. TB is caused by bacteria that infect the lungs. It spreads when bacteria travel through the air from one person coughing, sneezing, or speaking, and are inhaled by another individual. It is estimated that TB costs the global economy $1 billion a day, and there are strains that cannot be cured by any antibiotic. In 2011 alone, there were 8.7 million infections and 1.4 million deaths from TB. While the U.S. had only 10,528 reported cases of TB in 2011, a 2011-2012 TB outbreak in a Longmont High School shows how easily diseases like TB can affect local communities. With the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of TB, there is a potential for the impact of the disease to become more severe. Many TB vaccines are now in clinical trials that would have a local as well as global impact.
Respiratory infections like influenza and pneumonia are particularly dangerous for children and the elderly, resulting in at least 4.25 million deaths a year. The current flu vaccine is recommended annually and protects against the three most prevalent strains circulating in each given year. In early 2012, the FDA approved a flu vaccine that protects against four different strains. Because influenza is a virus that continually mutates, it alters its appearance to the immune system by changing the proteins in its outer layer, the portion of the virus that the cells of the immune system use to recognize the virus. However, a few of these outer proteins do not change. Scientists are using these proteins to make a multi-year vaccine with the hope of creating a universal flu vaccine.
Doctors and researchers are also working to develop new vaccines to prevent and treat diseases that affect adults. There have been great strides in creating vaccines to prevent cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and Alzheimer’s. Over 23.5 million Americans have an autoimmune disease and one in eight elderly Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. Autoimmune diseases occur when immune cells that are designed to protect us get confused and see our own cells as intruders. Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are examples of autoimmune diseases. Researchers are creating therapeutic vaccines, or vaccines that treat rather than prevent, to reestablish a balance in the immune system for people with autoimmune disorders.
As global temperatures and travel increase, diseases that were previously only seen in the tropics, such as malaria, West Nile and dengue are appearing in the U.S. In 2012, there were over 5,000 cases of West Nile in the U.S. Over 1,700 of these cases were in Texas. Mosquitos spread many of these diseases since they are now able to move north due to warmer year-round temperatures. Development of vaccines that prevent against tropical diseases is an important goal for researchers.
Many new vaccines will be made possible with the development of a new type of vaccine called DNA vaccines. This type of vaccine actually injects the DNA needed to make a specific portion of the pathogen into the vaccine recipient. The potential immunity that could be gained from a DNA vaccine would be effective and last for a long time. In addition, DNA vaccines would have very few side effects because the vaccine only uses the necessary component of the bacteria or virus to make a small amount of antigen.
Adjuvants are vaccine additives that stimulate the immune system. They are a hot topic in the vaccine conversation and serve a very important purpose. New adjuvants will make current vaccines more effective and are key components for future vaccines. Current and future adjuvant safety is thoroughly investigated. The right adjuvant has the possibility to enhance the interaction between the vaccine antigen and the cells of the immune system. At this time, there are over 20 adjuvants in clinical trials for serious diseases including influenza, cancers, and HIV.
While vaccines are very effective preventative care, shots can be painful. There are already needle- and pain-free vaccines that can be given as a nasal spray and taken orally, but researchers are coming close to releasing a new form of vaccine delivery called vaccine patches. These patches could be self-administered, distributed to a large number of people quickly, and helpful for kids (and adults!) who have a fear of needles.
Pregnant women, infants, individuals with certain allergies, and the immunocompromised cannot receive some vaccines. Developing vaccines for vulnerable populations is a main goal for public health officials and researchers. New vaccines are possible with increasing knowledge of the immune system, advances in vaccine technology, and adjuvant development.
Prevention is the most effective and affordable way to stop the spread of disease. Just imagine the variety of illnesses and diseases your children will be able to protect their children against!