In September 1992, Deborah Fuller traveled from Wisconsin to New York for a scientific conference at the nonprofit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, brimming with anticipation.
In September 1992, Deborah Fuller traveled from Wisconsin to New York for a scientific conference at the nonprofit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, brimming with anticipation. She was there to present early but promising research on a completely new vaccine approach that she had been working on.
It turned out to be a fortuitous meeting. “I go there thinking I’m going to be the only one with this new idea, and there were half a dozen other people all presenting this concept,” says Fuller, PhD, now a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle who’s working on a coronavirus vaccine. If other labs were getting the same results, it meant her research wasn’t just a fluke.
The conference organizers were riveted by the new idea. They reshuffled the meeting schedule so that Fuller and the others could present their research during the same session, on the last day of the meeting. Scientists who planned to leave the conference early scrambled to reschedule their flights home so they could stick around to hear about it.
The idea was elegant: Deliver a set of instructions that tells the body’s own cells to make a vaccine.
It was a complete departure from the way vaccines were being made — and largely still are — which involves a complex and costly process. This new approach, by contrast, could be quickly adapted to virtually any infectious disease and promised to drastically shorten the timeline it took to bring a vaccine to market. “It was a revolution in the sense of vaccines at the time,” Fuller says. “We immediately recognized its potential for fighting against future pandemics.”
Now, 30 years later, none of these so-called genetic vaccines have ever been approved for human diseases. But a handful of labs and companies have kept at it, steadily improving the technology. And the coronavirus pandemic has presented itself as an opportunity to put the experimental technology to the ultimate test. Now, several genetic vaccines for Covid-19 are advancing through clinical trials and have emerged as front-runners. Moderna, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, and Pfizer are all pursuing genetic vaccines.
Critics point out that neither Moderna nor Inovio has ever brought a drug or vaccine to market before. And before the coronavirus, genetic vaccines hadn’t been tested in large-scale clinical trials for infectious diseases.
If the technology works for Covid-19, it could pave the way for more of these vaccines for other diseases, including new pathogens that emerge in the future. When the next infectious disease outbreak comes, governments could be better prepared with a safe and effective vaccine technology to quickly test, manufacture, and scale-up.
“It may actually change how other vaccines are produced,” Rahul Gupta, MD, senior vice president and chief medical and health officer at the March of Dimes, told reporters during a National Press Foundation briefing on August 7. “We may be at the cusp of very much a new technology.”
But if it fails, it could be a major setback for stemming the tide of the deadly coronavirus.
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