Novartis is turning to J. Craig Venter to help blaze a development shortcut that can carve weeks off the time it takes to ramp up production of a new flu vaccine. One of the bottlenecks that appeared while developing a vaccine to fight swine flu occurred as the World Health Organization identified and distributed a reference virus needed to create new jabs. Venter's Synthetic Genomics Vaccines--a newly launched subsidiary--will work with Novartis to produce synthetic seed viruses, shaving as much as two months off the development timeline.
"It has the potential to safely reduce the time needed to develop new vaccines and improve pre-pandemic preparedness," says Rino Rappuoli, Novartis' chief of vaccine development.
The two companies agreed to collaborate for three years on the project, with a newly energized Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority providing financial support. Big manufacturers and the U.S. government have both committed to shake up the way vaccines are developed and manufactured, saying that they learned crucial lessons as the world clamored for months to get their hands on a pandemic vaccine last year.
Venter, widely considered one of the most abrasive and creative scientists in the U.S., was back in the spotlight recently when a scientific team of his used an artificially synthesized genome to rev up a new cell, essentially creating a small, new life form. That same approach, using computers to design synthetic seed viruses, will give researchers and Novartis a chance to bank a variety of the vaccine development tools that can be used as soon as the WHO identifies the flu strains threatening populations.