Know anyone who’s had whooping cough? Diphtheria? Hib disease? Smallpox? It's okay, most people don't. Vaccinations have helped prevent these and many other diseases you should be grateful to never experience. Thanks to vaccinations, a medical innovation that takes advantage of our natural immunological armies, modern humans carry antibodies against diseases they may never get, or know they even have.
In the immune system, antibodies are the body’s warriors, specially trained in viral combat. They are produced by sentinels of defense, diverse lymphocytes called B cells. When a B cell comes in contact with an antigen from a virus, for example, it begins to produce antibodies to mark the virus for destruction. These antibodies continue to exist in the body to prevent future reinfection. Vaccinations work by promoting this process without forcing the patient to suffer the symptoms of the disease.
Despite the countless successes of vaccinations, some people are still wary of taking advantage of immunological technology. One legitimate risk of conventional vaccinations that use weakened viruses is the potential for viral mutation; viruses could evolve into a new strain that might spread rapidly and dangerously. However, by the time my grandchildren and great grandchildren are immunized, vaccines will be more potent and function without this risk.
Since the 1990s, DNA vaccines have been tested and developed for use in animal populations. Unlike classic vaccinations, DNA vaccines lack the infectious agents they protect against, yet they are equally effective at generating antibodies against disease. How? The DNA of a virus can be processed analogously to classic viral antigens, without the risk of viral machinery being present in the body.
Furthermore, DNA vaccines can be manipulated and tailored to a greater extent, and are stable in a wider range of temperatures, allowing for cheaper and easier distribution. DNA vaccines can also be combined with classic vaccination methods for heightened antibody production. This technique has been utilized to reduce the amount of vaccinations administered to animals, particularly commercial livestock, that would ordinarily receive a multitude of shots to increase antibody levels. The benefit: stronger antibodies produced in the initial round preclude further inoculation.
Why then, in 25 years, have DNA vaccines not become the go-to vaccination technology? What is stopping this cheaper and more efficient method from making the leap from animal health science to human medicine? The answer is simply modern limitations in scientific understanding.
The immune system has been studied for only 200 years, yet it has complexities that are still an enigma to scientists. Animal health scientists struggle even today to optimize how and where vaccinations should be applied across species; vaccination strength and speed of effect vary between animals due to their unique immune system responses.
Additionally, it is not fully understood how many complex immune pathways could be triggered by presenting DNA vaccines within the body. Luckily for us, every day scientists worldwide make great strides to fill knowledge gaps regarding many diseases and the human immune system. Before long, DNA vaccines will revolutionize our immunity, and protect the generations to come.
Unlike classic vaccinations, DNA vaccines lack the infectious agents they protect against, yet they are equally effective at generating antibodies against disease.