Latest update: 12/01/2010
Flu brings outdated vaccine production into 21st century
As countries across Europe start selling off surplus supplies of the new flu vaccination, HEALTH looks at why governments were left with excess jabs. The production of the flu vaccine has changed little in over 50 years.
By Eve IRVINE
Vaccination production for the flu jab has changed little in over 50 years. It still requires the use of millions of eggs and about half a year to produce. In an average year over 100 million eggs are require to provide enough of the flu vaccine for the US alone. Recent pandemics, like the new flu, Influenza A, have left countries and pharmaceutical companies aware of the need to update the process.
Only a handful of vaccines are still used with eggs, most have moved on to using cell cultures.
Professor Christian Perronne of the Hospital Raymond Poncaire in France says that the flu virus is particular and didn’t reply to the alternatives to eggs that worked for other diseases. "Flu is from the mixovirus family, which is a very specific type of virus that didn't multiply in the same way as other virus so in the past the egg was the only thing that worked, that produced enough of the virus to make antigens to immunize people."
However in 2007 the threat of the Avian flu was enough to get pharmaceutical companies back looking for alternatives to poultry products. Baxter and Novartis both found solutions using cells descended from the African green monkey for the former, and dog’s kidneys for the latter. As the new flu spread they put their research into production and for the first time ever flu vaccinations made with cell cultures were brought to market.
Making vaccines from cell cultures halves the production time and does not rely on the availability of millions of chickens. Therefore in times of pandemic it should prove more reactive.
And while pharmaceutical giants are updating their flu shots, researchers in Nancy in France are looking at the potential of carnivorous plants in making medication. They take proteins from the plants, modify them genetically and get them to multiply inside the foliage. The team has managed to isolate interferon-gamma which fights tumours in numerous kinds of cancer.
As its easier to grow plants than an animal cell the team now wants to develop their discovery and to grow genetically modified plants for theraputic purposes. It will be at least another three years from their project to be developed commercially.
And finally, smaller than a pen nib: In the Middle East medical developers test the smallest camera in the world. It is capable of sliding easily inside blood vessels while the patient is awake and alert-thus giving doctors a new insight into our arteries and veins. The disposable camera also cuts down on the risk of infections as it’s used only once.