Popular Science




BEFORE VACCINES, physicians would blow smallpox scabs up people’s noses or stab them with pus-laced needles to build up their resistance to the virus. It usually worked: Patients would feel mildly ill, then grow immune. But because the pathogen was still living inside them, they could spread it to others.

By the 1930s, medical researcher­s had figured out how to breed harmless forms of bugs to stuff into sterilized injections. Since then, vaccines have saved tens of millions of lives, but the pace of developmen­t can be glacial. Over the past century, it’s taken an average of 25 years to create a “dead” virus that can protect humans. But when faced with new and rapidly spreading contagions, could a different approach cut that timeline down to just a few months?

One experiment­al method involves dosing patients with small bits of viral DNA and RNA instead of a geneticall­y watered-down version of the pathogen itself. By shooting synthesize­d pieces of a virus’s genetic code straight into the body’s defense systems, we might teach white blood cells to recognize and ambush diseases like influenza, explains Shane Crotty, a professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology. The workaround could allow new vaccines for Zika, rabies, and more unfamiliar illnesses to reach large-scale clinical trials in less than a year.

The real game changer, though, will come when virologist­s no longer need to design vaccines that combat specific strains. For infectious pathogens that mutate quickly, immunologi­sts like Crotty might scout out the proteins in a germ’s genetic makeup that don’t change and craft synthetic versions, allowing the body to track intruders even after they’ve morphed. Such treatments may become available in the next decade. With a portion of the code already deciphered, drug companies would have what they need to vaccinate people safely and at record speed.

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