New technology speeds up swine vaccine production
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New technology speeds up swine vaccine production


Ames company can manufacture flu vaccine using an electronic map of a virus' genetic material.

October 7, 2012

New technology speeds up swine vaccine production

Ames company can manufacture flu vaccine using an electronic map of a virus' genetic material.

By Tony Leys

The next time a swine herd gets a new form of flu, an Iowa company says it stands ready to crank out a vaccine to protect against it in five weeks flat.

Standard vaccine manufacturing methods take at least two or three months, because manufacturers must grow large quantities of the new virus. That can lead to repeated delays, allowing an outbreak to spread, said Hank Harris, who founded Harrisvaccines in Ames.

Harris’ company uses a new technology, which takes the electronic map of a virus’ genetic material and inserts that gene sequence into special cells. Those cells then rapidly produce particles containing the new flu virus’ genes. A vaccine made from the particles can trigger an animal’s immune system to defend against the flu virus.

“What’s different in what we do is we never have to have a virus to make a vaccine,” said Harris, a veterinary medicine professor at Iowa State University.

In fact, he said, the original virus would never have to be present at the company’s headquarters south of the university campus. A different company or government lab would scan a sample from an infected pig, map the genes of the new strain of flu, then send the sequence electronically to Ames.

“This is a game changer,” Harris said.

The company is selling and working on other types of veterinary vaccines, but the flu shots could be particularly important. Flu viruses often shift forms, causing disease among pigs that were vaccinated against previous strains. Infections among hogs can spread to humans. That happened this summer, when an outbreak of a new version of swine flu sickened more than 300 Americans, mainly in Indiana and Ohio. Most people had mild illnesses, but a few were hospitalized and one person died, federal officials said.

Last month, the seven-year-old company received a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing it to sell swine flu vaccine to farmers without a veterinarian’s prescription. It was the first such license awarded for an animal vaccine made this way, the company said.

Harrisvaccines bought veterinary rights to the technology from a North Carolina firm, Alphavax, which is using the method to develop vaccines for humans. Robert Olmsted, that company’s vice president for research, said efforts have included demonstrating that the method could be used to create vaccines against SARS and H1N1 flu, new viruses that threatened to cause widespread epidemics in humans.

Those vaccines weren’t put into use, partly because the company is too small to make large quantities, Olmsted said. But drug-making giant Novartis bought the rights to test and market Alphavax’s vaccine against CMV, a sexually transmitted virus.

David Spiro, who oversees influenza research financing for the National Institutes of Health, said the manufacturing method shows promise. But he noted that it would be much tougher for a company to gain government approval for sale of a vaccine for people.

“We’re really years away from this type of thing being used in humans,” he said.

If it can be proven to be safe enough, Spiro said, such technology someday could prevent the kind of manufacturing delays that caused shortages of vaccine during the H1N1 flu outbreak in the winter of 2009-10.

Harrisvaccine’s 15,000-square-foot headquarters includes a production area that is about the size of a restaurant kitchen. From there, workers can produce about 2 million doses within a few weeks by mixing the engineered cells with saline solution.

The production area lacks the large tanks, similar to beer-making vats, that most other vaccine makers use. The Ames company doesn’t need to brew thousands of gallons of cell cultures, Harris said. It also never would need huge racks of eggs that some companies use to produce vaccines.

The vaccines cost about 50 cents per dose, about as much as other companies’ products.


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