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Vaccine advance may ward off epidemic

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By Micaela Jemison

Scientists have found a way to design and manufacture vaccines in weeks rather than months, potentially cutting the time it would take to respond to a global influenza epidemic.

Flu vaccines are now produced by growing the live virus in chicken eggs or cultured cells - a cumbersome and time-consuming process.

But researchers from Germany's Friedrich Loeffler Institute have found a way to make a vaccine artificially by copying the flu virus's RNA code. The code is a template viruses use to build proteins and evolve.

Their findings, outlined in the journal Nature Biotechnology this week, mean the time and resources needed to manufacture flu vaccines is cut dramatically. It could also allow scientists to respond more rapidly to make next-generation vaccines as the flu virus evolves and changes.

''We have a significant need for improved technologies that could be rapidly adapted to match circulating strains and allow efficient, large-scale production if necessary,'' said the paper's lead author, Lothar Stitz. ''In particular, we ultimately need a broadly protective vaccine against influenza.''

The new synthetic vaccine was tested in mice, ferrets and pigs.

The results show the vaccine could not only protect the animal from flu infection but that it also had the potential to provide protection from new strains as they emerged.

While not yet tested in humans, the immune response observed in pigs is promising as, like humans, they contract flu - a virus not all animals are susceptible to.

The Influenza Specialist Group, representing medical and scientific specialists from Australia and New Zealand, said the development was a step in the right direction.

''The work done on this to date is fairly comprehensive,'' said the group's chairman, Alan Hampson. ''They have found an immune response in not only mice but also in ferrets and pigs, which have a closer response to that found in humans.''

However, he said while the research represented a valuable proof of concept in animals, there was still a long way to go before proving it could be applied to humans.

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