During the last century, mass vaccination campaigns were rolled out across much of the industrialised world. And, with much success, we have near eradicated most common virus infections from these populations. Despite the more recent efforts to bring the developing world into this fold, major setbacks have been uncovered, one being: how exactly are we to stably transport delicate vaccine stocks from their place of production to the regions that need it most.
Many of these vaccines, known as 'live attenuated vaccines' - or LAVs-are generally unstable in the environment outside of our cells and bodies. For example, the measles virus has an outer lipid membrane that is highly delicate and damage to this removes any chance of this vaccine working. Basically, these LAVs, which rely upon a weaker infection, cannot successfully complete their replication cycle without an envelope. Generally, the ability of a vaccine to provide protection is intrinsically linked to its overall structure; you destroy the structure, you destroy protection.
|Unstable measles virus particles|
The more difficult places to transport vaccines to happen to be more tropical regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, South America and South-East Asia. These places are very warm and humid which goes against what our vaccines like. With temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius and the fact that freezing also destroys the vaccine, the only way forward is the implementation of a cold chain. If we keep the vaccine stock 'chilled' from manufacture (see Merck or the Serum Institute of India) all the way to administration, then we have a chance to prevent its degradation. But this is not as easy as it may sound as it is economically and logistically difficult to achieve this in developing countries. To overcome this, the produced vaccine stock is freeze-dried to remove any water that may contribute to its instability and when this prep reaches the clinic it is then reconstituted through the addition of a solvent preparation, which has then all got to be kept cool.
With measles virus vaccines however, even upon reconstitution, there are still major losses to immunogenicity and this problem is compounded with the use of multi-dose vials of vaccines. A single vaccine stock, prepared in the morning may now sit in the clinic unrefrigerated until the end of clinic hours. If we were then to get immunized at 5:00 pm, what are the chances of that being successful? It is thus not much of a surprise to hear that many virus outbreaks have been attributed to breaks in the cold chain like this. Our ability to eradicate many diseases in these countries and hence worldwide, is blocked by difficulties in the cold chain.
Being so, Bill and Melinda Gates identified "Vaccines That Do Not Require Refrigeration" as one of their funded 14 Grand Challenges in Global Health and the results of one potential solution to this problem have just been published in the journal Vaccine (read it here). This work aimed at identifying novel reconstitution liquids that would increase the thermostability of the prepared vaccine and therefore increase its 'shelf-life' in these more difficult environments. Using a recombinant measles vaccine virus that expresses green fluorescent protein (GFP) upon infection, the group were able to assess the level of infectivity of a range of vaccine stocks reconstituted in varied solutions.
|Counting measles virus infected (GFP positive) cells|
Indeed, they tested >11,000 formulations (myriad combinations of buffers, stabilizers, solubilizers, preservatives, pH and tonicifiers - whatever they are?) using their recently developed high-throughput system in which they were able to automate the whole process. These results were validated and confirmed with another virus, this time an adenovirus expressing GFP; results were the same. The group identified a formulation that caused the vaccine to "suffer <1.0 log loss after 8 h at 40 ◦ C in the liquid state", a major improvement on a previous loss of" 1 log of potency after 8 h at 37 ◦ C in the reconstituted (liquid) form". In conclusion, they identified a novel vaccine formulation that substantially increased the stability of two viruses, which can be used in immunization campaigns worldwide. As I've alluded to before, the use of high-throughput screens has much potential in the world of virus research.
|Log loss of infectivity of vaccines|
How is this result likely to change vaccine implementation in the real world then? Well, the evidence presented here indicates the ability of creating more stable vaccines that would transfer to better vaccine coverage yet the real problem appears to be whether current vaccine manufacturers would accommodate such a significant change to production, especially given their inherent unwillingness to invest in the developing world.
The cost associated with this may be offset by the savings made through reduction in vaccine wastage and loss of cold chain implementation but we must realise that only when such an improvement looks attractive to the market will change come. The future of vaccination looks to be bright, especially with the combination of newer technologies and the backing of large philanthropic organisations.
Schlehuber LD, McFadyen IJ, Shu Y, Carignan J, Duprex WP, Forsyth WR, Ho JH, Kitsos CM, Lee GY, Levinson DA, Lucier SC, Moore CB, Nguyen NT, Ramos J, Weinstock BA, Zhang J, Monagle JA, Gardner CR, & Alvarez JC (2011). Towards ambient temperature-stable vaccines: The identification of thermally stabilizing liquid formulations for measles virus using an innovative high-throughput infectivity assay. Vaccine PMID: 21616113