Living With Insect-Produced Vaccines

The 2012-2013 flu season in the US has been severe increasing demand for flu vaccine. Due to problems producing enough vaccine in a short period of time, vaccine producers are turning to insect cells to solve the problem.

What is a flu vaccine?
Flu vaccines are made from a flu virus protein, typically a hemagglutinin. Injection of a vaccine containing a hemagglutinin protein stimulates the immune system to produce large numbers antibodies that recognize and attack the protein. Antibodies prevent the protein (and thus the virus) from attaching to cells or from entering the cell. This neutralizes the virus. A vaccinated individual will have antibodies that will neutralize the virus before it can replicate. Without immunization, the virus can replicate and cause influenza before the body can create the antibodies needed to attack the virus.

Why are new vaccines required every year?
The influenza virus hemagglutinin is a variable protein with a rapid mutation rate. The virus can only survive if it can escape detection. Influenza strains (new mutants) appear every year that can escape detection. Immunity to the influenza strain prevalent in the previous year does not confer immunity to the new strain. Thus, every year, the new strain must be anticipated and the new mutant form of hemagglutinin identified and reproduced.

How is hemagglutinin produced?
Influenza viruses are primarily bird viruses that replicate rapidly in bird cells. If a flu virus is injected into a chicken egg, the virus will replicate and the egg will contain large amounts of the virus and the hemagglutinin. Early vaccines used “killed” virus, but vaccines can be made from the hemagglutinin alone. Production in eggs is tedious, time consuming and virus mutations can make the vaccine lots variable. Modern molecular biology allows the genes for hemagglutinin to be rapidly cloned and inserted into cells. Cells can be grown in large vats of nutrient broth and produce copious amounts of proteins.

Why use insect cells?

Cells of Fall Armyworm used to produce proteins for Flu Vaccines

The hemagglutinin proteins of flu viruses have sugars attached to the protein. Bacterial cells will not attach sugars to proteins, so the protein must be processed in an eukaryotic cell. Unlike bacteria, insect have eukaryotic cells that correctly process (glycosylate) the protein. Insect cell cultures have been used for production of glycoproteins for decades. The methods for their large scale growth and collection of the proteins are robust. Thus, insect cells are an excellent system for producing the large amounts of hemagglutinin needed to produce an influenza vaccine. The use of the cloned hemagglutinin is safer and less likely to have adverse side effects than virus produced in chicken eggs. In insect cells, the vaccine can be produced in greater quantities and in a shorter time than by using chicken eggs. Timeliness is critical in a flu epidemic. Thus we can expect to see increased use of insect cells in vaccine production.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Biomaterials, by jjneal, Health. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Living With Insect-Produced Vaccines

  1. Lauren says:

    I think that it is fascinating how we can use insects to better our health. Often people only think of insects as pest but in this case they are being used to help produce more hemagglutinin to help produce more vaccines. The insects are actually helping us so we should be less bitter towards insects. Its also incredible how far science has come for us to understand this part of the insects body and for us to be able to use them for a vaccine.

  2. Donovan Harris says:

    Its amazing to me how a small insect can better a human being’s health. The average insect is about 5 to 7 in a half inches. It just seems unreal that an organism of that size could better a human that is on average 107 inches. When I think of insects I think of them being a hassle to deal with, and I just want to kill them. But in reality they can help us in the long run which fascinates me.

  3. Pingback: influenza Vaccines and Insects | Living With Insects Blog

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