Shot in the arm for vaccines

A Flinders University research program to develop new forms of vaccine against infectious diseases has received over $3 million in funding from the United States Government's National Institutes of Health.

While the vaccines are expected to be instrumental in protection against diseases that could be used in bioterrorist attacks, they also aim to offer protection against natural epidemics of diseases such as influenza and hepatitis.

"Our work is very applicable to vaccines considered important against a bioterrorist threat, but also applies to vaccines against standard childhood and adult diseases," said Dr Nikolai Petrovsky.

The vaccine research program is led by Professor Petrovsky, who is Director of Diabetes and Endocrinology Unit in the School of Medicine. As well as working towards the production of vaccines against deadly infectious diseases, his research team is also working on the development of vaccines against type 1 diabetes and forms of cancer.

Some of the vaccines against infectious diseases are expected to be available for use in the next three to five years.

Dr Petrovsky said a major aspect of the Flinders research is the introduction into vaccines of a natural product called inulin, derived from plant sugar.

Vaccines have two crucial components: the antigen, a modified form of the disease-causing organism that enables the body to recognise and respond to the real thing; and the adjuvant, which acts as a "booster", stimulating the immune system's response to the antigen.

The traditional adjuvant in use around the world is aluminium hydroxide, Professor Petrovsky said. This substance, however, has some drawbacks including the fact that some antigens do not work with it, preventing the successful development of vaccines against some infections.

"Our adjuvant will potentially fill many of these gaps, and will enable many more novel vaccines to be developed," Professor Petrovsky said.

And while aluminium hydroxide is relatively safe (it is used every day in millions of doses of vaccines), it can cause reactions, particularly in the form of severe pain and swelling at the site of the injection.

Aluminium is also viewed with a degree of suspicion in the community, Professor Petrovsky said.

"While no-one is suggesting that the problems posed by aluminium outweigh the millions of lives saved by vaccines, if you can replace the aluminium with a completely safe plant sugar that is non-toxic and completely metabolised by the body, you'd be far better off," he said.

"Inulin has zero safety concerns."

Public perceptions can very be important, Professor Petrovsky said, citing the concerns of US military personnel over side effects of anthrax vaccines before the invasion of Iraq.

"There can be enormous problems if people perceive a vaccine not be 100 per cent safe and side effect free," he said.

As well as the benefits to the research, Professor Petrovsky said that the US grant also raised the possibility that South Australia could become a potential manufacturer of vaccines.

"We already have the capacity in terms of facilities in the State to produce the various components of vaccines," he said.

While CSL in Melbourne produces the only two vaccines produced in Australia, Professor Petrovsky said it was not a major focus of their operations, with most of their activities being based around blood products.

"The opportunity currently exists to create a major Australia vaccine centre if the South Australian Government is prepared to take it," he said.

Professor Petrovsky also argues that Australia urgently needs to increase its capacity for vaccine production.

"Nearly all of our vaccines are imported, so we are very vulnerable," he said.

"If there is a 'flu crisis, or if there is a bioterrorist threat that requires large scale immunisation with vaccines, the answer is that we don't have them, and we can't make them without a production base."

"An obvious answer is to develop an Australian vaccine manufacturing base, which could easily be in South Australia, if there was the desire to support this. This could potentially create hundreds of jobs, and also provide avenues for overseas export of Australian produced vaccines."

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