Novartis taps synthetic biology to speed vax development

The evolution of vaccine manufacturing methods is closely linked to the products themselves. In the period of vaccine innovation that followed World War II, investments spurred on evolution of production, but a lull began in the 1970s. Now the pace of change is accelerating once again.

Renewed interest in vaccines has opened up new therapeutic targets, which in turn has driven new approaches to manufacturing. And the threats of pandemic flu and bioterrorism have acted as an extra innovation driver. This is apparent looking at the agenda for the mammalian synthetic biology workshop held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last weekend. Among the most topical discussions was Novartis' report on the progress it has made in synthesizing hybrid flu genomes.

Novartis ($NVS) viral vaccine research leader Philip Dormitzer told attendees how it synthesizes virus genomes and grows them in tissue culture cells, MIT Technology Review reports. In doing so, Novartis believes it can shave weeks off vaccine development timelines, a belief that is now being put to the test by H7N9. Novartis is working with the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to apply the technology to development of a vaccine for the latest pandemic flu threat. The collaborators published a paper describing the work in Science Translational Medicine this week.

Trimming a few weeks off development timelines could save lives, but greater time savings are on the horizon. Flagship Ventures CEO Noubar Afeyan said that in 10 years the time needed to go from discovery of an infectious disease to development of a vaccine could be cut to just one week. The improvement will come as vaccine developers switch from "brute-force search" to "routinization," a roundup by conference organizers reports. Other changes predicted by Afeyan include the development of flexible adjuvant responses and personal genomic vaccines.

- here's the MIT Technology Review article
- check out the breakout reports
- view the Science abstract