Field of Science

So, how do you know when a vaccine is safe?

How can you tell how safe a vaccine is?
Mumps, a highly infectious viral disease, has been largely eradicated in the developed world following the introduction of a highly effective live-attenuated vaccine. Highlighted by well-publicized outbreaks in the U.S and U.K, the number of cases, however, has risen causing worldwide alarm. The reasons for this re-emergence have yet to be fully elucidated but most likely are due to a number of factors, including waning immunity and poor vaccine coverage.

Despite what is normally reported, mumps infection can cause serious complications. Prior to the introduction of the vaccine - and of course in countries that fail to administer it - mumps infection was/is the most common cause of viral meningitis and encephalitis; it has been estimated that 50% of those infected by mumps have some form of central nervous system involvement, although 1 - 10% will actually experience a symptomatic infection. It is safe to say that the mumps virus is one of the most neurotropic human viruses currently circulating and that its neurotropism can hardly be considered a complication.

All this really underlines the importance of maintaining mumps vaccination in protecting individuals and populations from serious disease. The key then is to develop not just more effective vaccines but also safer vaccines as people aren't likely to give their children a vaccine which may cause serious side-effects especially considering the propensity for mumps virus to cause CNS disease. A recent review of mumps vaccine safety states that,

Such a problem places public confidence in all mumps vaccines at risk, as indicated by the experience in Japan where national mumps vaccination programs were discontinued in 1993 following established links to aseptic meningitis; consequently, more than a million new mumps cases occur annually in that country

Lewis rat - is this the future of mumps vaccine safety?
How then are we to assess the safety and more specifically 'neurovirulence' of mumps candidate vaccine stocks? Recently, Rubin and Afzal from the United States Food and Drug Administration and the UK National Institute for Biological Standards and Control respectively, outlines the current state of the art in mumps virus safety testing and outlines how its future might look. What we would like in a test system is for it be accurate and fully predictive (limit false positives and negatives); it would need to economical (vaccines need a lot of testing) and it needs to be relatively easy to carry out and replicate. For us to do this, these methods require vigorous testing!

Currently, much like other virus vaccines, mumps vaccine safety is assessed in a monkey model and has resulted in the detection of significantly attenuated vaccines for use in humans. There is however cause for concern with this system as in some instances it fails to distinguish between important differences in levels of attenuation. There is therefore a need to replace this system if not on the grounds of ethical and economic concern but on the grounds of safety. In has stepped a small animal model - the lewis rat- which has been shown to better predict neurovirulence; is cheaper and is less ethically taxing; it is hence subject to a WHO validation study.

False colour electron micrograph of the mumps virus

But why do we have to use animal models at all for safety testing? Can we not just be content with in vitro studies with cell lines? In some cases, we can predict how a virus will act within an animal on the basis of studying how it infects and replicates in cell line but there is, however, no in vitro alternatives for mumps - at least not yet - and even if there were we can't say whether it could ever fully replace animal studies.

In some systems, animal infections just cannot be replaced if we are to maintain a high level of vaccine safety which of course is important when vaccines are administered to billions of people worldwide we are then forced to stick with animal testing. We can rest assured that with recent developments in small-animal models, future testing may come more accurate, cheaper and a little more ethically pleasing.

BRUYN HB, SEXTON HM, & BRAINERD HD (1957). Mumps meningoencephalitis; a clinical review of 119 cases with one death. California medicine, 86 (3), 153-60 PMID: 13404512

Dayan GH, & Rubin S (2008). Mumps outbreaks in vaccinated populations: are available mumps vaccines effective enough to prevent outbreaks? Clinical infectious diseases : an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 47 (11), 1458-67 PMID: 18959494

Rubin, S., & Afzal, M. (2011). Neurovirulence safety testing of mumps vaccines—Historical perspective and current status Vaccine DOI: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2011.02.005

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