Influenza is a devastating illness: it has been responsible for around 710,000 hospitalizations and up to 56,000 deaths since 2010. Its chosen method of infection, which involves interaction with the droplets made when people sneeze, cough, or speak, is remarkably successful — those who are sick can infect dozens on their way to get treatment and are contagious even before symptoms develop. The main solution to this miserable cycle is prevention through vaccination, and scientists have just discovered a game changer.
Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have made headway using virus-like particles (VLPs), which are “protein-based structures that mimic viruses and bind to antibodies.” Essentially, they allow us to understand the structure of viruses and how they operate, which then allows us a unique advantage over how best to attack the real virus through the use of a vaccine.
VLPs, in particular, possess a specific kind of protein called hemagglutinin (HA). The number and placement of these proteins can help VLP-based vaccines increase in efficacy against live influenza viruses, which prevents them from infecting other cells. Although this research was conducted specifically using the influenza virus, its practical application could be incorporated across the entire spectrum of viruses once we understand it more thoroughly.
Since vaccines are so dependent on specific temperatures to stay effective, one has to wonder if the use of VLPs in their construction would impact that vital aspect. Medical grade refrigerators and vaccine freezers are costly and already in place in all locations where vaccines are kept and administered. If we no longer needed to strictly regulate their temperature through the use of lab freezers and lab refrigerators, the medical industry could save money and prevent the waste of vaccines that fell outside of their desired range (which causes them to break down). Additionally, the lack of temperature control could allow vaccines to be sent to places around the world that cannot afford regulated laboratory environments or expensive equipment and machinery.
We don’t know the future of vaccines (and their need for medical grade refrigerators or laboratory freezers), but the findings by NIAID are certainly a promising start.