February 28, 2014

Leading Scientists Call for a Human Vaccines Project in Science

Accelerating Next-Generation Vaccine Development for Global Disease Prevention

A group of leading scientists advocate the creation of a Human Vaccines Project to accelerate the development of next generation vaccines against major global killers such as AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases. In the current issue of the journal Science they further argue that a Human Vaccines Project would fuel vaccine approaches to preventing allergies, autoimmune diseases and cancers, and provide a firm foundation for developing vaccines against new and emerging diseases. (Science, Accelerating Next-Generation Vaccine Development for Global Disease Prevention)

Led by IAVI’s Chief Scientific Officer Wayne Koff, the authors survey new biomedical technologies—ranging from genomics to humanized mice—that might be harnessed to advance the development of a new generation of vaccines. Further, they propose the coordinated conduct of small, iterative clinical studies in human volunteers to generate a more granular picture of the systemic requirements of vaccine-induced immunity. Such information would, they argue, establish a firm scientific foundation for vaccinology, one that could be applied to improve the design of all future vaccine candidates.

Among the most effective of public health interventions, vaccines collectively prevent the death of 2-3 million people every year. Yet researchers have not been able to devise broadly effective vaccines against a number of deadly or debilitating infectious agents that have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to evade the immune system. New approaches are needed to prevent infection by such pathogens.

Though informed by science, vaccine design has traditionally been guided more by the results of disease-specific experimentation than by a generally applicable set of principles. Researchers today know relatively little about the general interplay of immune responses and supporting cellular and biochemical factors that fuel lasting immunity in response to vaccination. As a consequence, the success rate of vaccine candidates that enter the first phase of clinical evaluation—at 22%—is roughly half that of biotech drugs. New technologies could do much to change this state of affairs. 

Vaccinologists have already begun to devise new approaches to vaccine design. For example, “systems vaccinology” studies of the full complement of human genes activated by the yellow fever vaccine have begun to illuminate the range of interacting immune factors and cells that are essential to its notable potency. An application of genomics named “reverse vaccinology” has allowed scientists to devise a long-sought vaccine against meningococcus B, a bacterium that can cause lethal systemic infections. Meanwhile, the rapid, robot-assisted structural analysis of proteins, large-scale gene sequencing, and computationally directed protein engineering are already being applied in sync to design vaccine candidates that might overcome the staggering variability of HIV and other highly mutable viruses, such as influenza and hepatitis C.

Koff and his co-authors argue that much more could be achieved if such studies were coordinated and combined under a single goal-oriented program. Some 2.5 million people are newly infected by HIV each year; broadly effective HIV vaccines would do much to reverse that trend and, ultimately, end the AIDS pandemic. The effort to develop such vaccines would benefit immeasurably from a Human Vaccines Project, and IAVI offers its full support to any such effort.

Along with Wayne Koff and Rick King, IAVI’s Vice President of Vaccine Design, the authors of the Science review include the Scientific Director of IAVI’s Neutralizing Antibody Consortium, Dennis Burton, of The Scripps Research Institute; Philip Johnson of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Bruce Walker of The Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard; Gary Nabel of Sanofi-Aventis; Rafi Ahmed of the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University; Maharaj Bhan, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India; and Stanley Plotkin of the University of Pennsylvania.