Inside the High-Stakes World of Vaccine Development

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Vaccines are widely recognized as the most effective way we’ve got to fight infectious disease, a bulwark against a staggeringly diverse array of potentially pathogenic organisms looking to circumvent our defenses. Pervasive vaccines like those for influenza, measles, or polio offer a sense of security, but it wasn’t always so, and a range of established and emerging threats continue to present real problems. Given the physical interconnectedness of even the most remote locations with the rest of the world, esoteric pathogens have a fast track to global transmission like never before.

In this context, the front lines of vaccine development research – where lab coat-clad scientists test new approaches in state-of-the-art laboratories – represent a life-and-death battle for millions of people around the world. There are four primary players in the field of industrial-scale vaccine research and development: Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). (Yes, other companies and academic labs are on the cutting edge of research, but only a select few organizations have the capacity to produce resulting vaccines on a global scale.)Moncef Slaoui has been in the game for decades, and currently serves as GSK’s Chairman of Vaccines. Despite the typical decades-long R&D process and the wide range of biological complexity that awaits future cure-seekers, Slaoui is optimistic that cures will continue to be found. “Most viruses? Fine, those shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” he says, on the sidelines of last month’s South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas. “Most bacteria? Yes. I think it’s the human parasites” – worms and other eukaryotic pathogens – “that are a different story, another level of complexity.”

To Slaoui, the search for a vaccine begins with a healthy respect for evolutionary history; this battle between infectious agents and animals hosts, after all, has been raging for hundreds of millions of years. “I think we should always start from the idea that by studying how pathogens escape our immune protection,” he explains, “we will actually understand how the immune system functions, because they got there before us.”

Source: Discover Magazine (link opens in a new window)

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