Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. —Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction
Imagine that instead of wasting time analyzing strains of influenza or offering immunizations that may not target the dominant virus, researchers could come up with one vaccine that would prevent all known types. The biomedical company Inovio will begin clinical trials this year on a universal DNA flu vaccine that could fit that bill.
Unlike traditional inoculations, in which a weakened or dead virus triggers antibodies to prevent illness, Inovio scientists have designed DNA vaccines that they hope will someday be capable of preventing and treating illness. This next generation of vaccines relies on two innovations: plasmid-based DNA and electroporation.
In Inovio’s SynCon DNA Vaccine Platform, researchers snip a piece of DNA, a ringed helix of information called a plasmid, programmed to target all subtypes of a gene sequence inherent in a disease. Once injected, the plasmids express a protein that activates the body’s T cells and antibodies. In essence, instead of treating one particular relative, the vaccine fights the whole family—and protects against future invasion.
However, the vaccine’s success depends on whether cells ingest enough DNA to elicit a reaction: enter electroporation. Using what looks like a miniature cattle prod with two electrodes, the needles deliver brief electrical pulses along with the vaccine to help cells absorb the solution more efficiently (above). These mild shocks create temporary pores in muscle and skin cells, like inverted goose bumps, enhancing the delivery of DNA plasmids by a thousand times or more. Remarkably, this same technology is also being applied to the treatment of various cancers.
“The goal, ultimately, would be that [the vaccine] would be so powerful that it could potentially cure you,” says Inovio Vice President Michael Fons. “In the near term, though, our goals are to have significant reduction in viral loads . . . that could be used as an adjunct to therapies people are already doing.”
It might soon be possible to go to the doctor and get a shot to cure cervical cancer without the side effects caused by chemotherapy or surgery. Just like magic.
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