If you were concerned about the safety of vaccines or the threat of certain diseases, your mind might just be put at rest. Cambridge-based biotech development company VBI Vaccines Inc. (Nasdaq: VBIV) has developed a new method of vaccination that could change the face of disease and birth defect prevention around the world. With a new technology called enveloped virus like particles (eVLPs), they have started making vaccines that are more effective and safer than ever before. Here’s how they work.
No Longer Fighting Disease With Disease
Most of us know that a vaccine is made from the disease it’s meant to prevent, in a small dose or a state that renders it harmless. “They’re very different from drugs in the sense that vaccines don’t kill the pathogens that they’re meant to protect against,” says Dr. David E. Anderson, VBI’s Chief Scientific Officer. “Instead what a vaccine does is it teaches the immune system how to combat a bacteria or virus.”
A vaccine particle delivers antigens, molecules that trigger an immune response in the patient. So when a vaccine is introduced into the body, the patient’s immune system learns how to overcome that type of particle. That way, if the real disease comes along, the body is trained to deal with it. But this type of vaccine is not without its risk.
What if a vaccine could mimic a virus particle without actually being the virus? That’s exactly the idea behind the eVLP. Dr. Anderson explains that the new technology “enables us to make viral vaccines that very closely mimic the size and shape of the virus, and it results in a very potent immune response.”
The Natural Approach
Virus like particles themselves are nothing new. There have been a couple generations of VLP technology, but there were some limitations with them. Even the most recent VLPs had antigens that were chemically fixed to the structure of the particles, which isn’t the natural way to present antigens to the body.
In an eVLP, by comparison, the antigens are affixed in a lipid bilayer, an organic membrane just like the ones protecting your cells. Lipid bilayers also form around the cells of many viruses, which means that to your body, the eVLP looks more authentic and organic, and it acts more naturally as it stimulates your immune response. No chemical glue necessary.
And what’s beneath the organic membrane? You’ll be pleased to hear no virus! Unlike traditional vaccines made from the target disease, the eVLP carries no infectious material, making it dramatically safer than previous vaccine technology. All it has underneath is a protein core, a benign vehicle for delivering the antigens. In other words, a vaccine with zero chance of infection.
Next Stop: Curing Brain Cancer
Last month, Washington, D.C. hosted the World Vaccine Congress. At a sub-conference on cancer and immunotherapy, Dr. Anderson presented new data from VBI’s research. The data supports their development plans for a therapeutic vaccine to treat a common and aggressive form of brain cancer, called glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM.
The goal is to create a commercially-viable immunotherapy that will stimulate a patient’s immune system to target and destroy GBM cancer cells. VBI plans to begin clinical trials later this year.
One VBI vaccine is already on the market. Sci-B-Vac, a third generation hepatitis B vaccine (HBV), is approved for use in 15 countries worldwide and has already helped over 300,000 patients.
Hepatitis B is a global health issue. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 257 million people are infected with the hepatitis B virus. It’s a unique occupational hazard for healthcare workers in particular, because the virus is transmitted through blood contact.
As the refugee crisis escalates in Europe, healthcare centers are supporting increasing numbers of people from under vaccinated nations. A study conducted at a refugee camp in Germany found that over half of patients had no immunity to hepatitis B, and only 18.6 percent had been vaccinated.
In order to bolster refugee relief and protect healthcare workers, a powerful HBV is necessary. Sci-B-Vac mimics all three types of antigens in the hepatitis B virus, and is strong enough that it can be delivered in considerably smaller doses than its predecessors.
Saving the World, One eVLP at a Time
If it sounds like they’re on a mission to save the world, well, they just might be. But isn’t that what a good biotech company is supposed to be doing? “Everyone at VBI is passionate about the science and technologies that we’re developing,” says Dr. Anderson, “and excited about the prospects of translating these technologies from the lab into the clinic.” Time will tell how well this technology is received by society at large, but who knows? VBI might just have found a way of restoring our faith in western medicine.