New vaccine helps treat the flu

January 28, 2008 9:23:31 PM PST
Researchers believe they have found a better way to create a flu vaccine using genetic engineering.

It's called "Flublock", and can be produced within four weeks, instead of the 20 weeks it takes to make a vaccine today.

When it comes to fighting a pandemic outbreak, time will be critical.

In 2005 the world was threatened by the avian flu pandemic. Still today it would take a vaccine maker about five months to produce and ship the right vaccine.

"They culture them in chicken eggs and they grow the virus up in those cells, that's what takes the time," said Dr. Roger Baxter from Kaiser Permanente.

Dr. Roger Baxter is leading clinical trials done by Kaiser Permanente, using a genetically engineered vaccine which in the event of a pandemic, would be ready to go in just four weeks.

This is how it works: instead of using chicken eggs, scientists took caterpillar cells and injected an influenza virus protein.

"And they could grow huge, enormous numbers of viruses in a day, I mean billions of viruses in just a few days," said Dr. Baxter.

So they would produce more of the vaccine and one which researchers say, would work better in older people whose immune systems are weaker.

"It will trigger a better immune response than the normal vaccine, so a more brisk response. Because? Because there is more of it," said Dr. Baxter.

The vaccine would generate more antibodies.

In the Kaiser trials, 600 patients, 51 and older were given two vaccines. Half got the standard flu vaccine, the other half the genetically engineered one.

In a few months, they'll find out which group did better. A vaccine like this could change the course of any pandemic.

"If there is someone who is not vaccinated in the community, they are surrounded by people who are vaccinated, so that people who are surrounding the unvaccinated act as a barrier," said San Francisco Communicable Disease Prevention Unit Director.

Once a vaccine is developed, San Francisco is one of 74 cities in the nation capable of administering it within 48 hours at 20 sites.

The genetically engineered vaccine must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA could give the green light as early as next September, right before the beginning of the flu season.