The economics of vaccine discovery are, quite honestly, shit. We’re talking about a product that is only needed once or maybe a few times in a person’s life; the flu vaccine–which many can receive free or cheap–is the exception (at least currently – many are fiercely trying to develop a universal vaccine). So unlike once-a-day medicines for chronic diseases, the vaccine market is small and unattracive. And to top that off, the populations most in need are those least able to pay for the 15+ years of research and the expensive human testing necessary to receive government approval for use. Many of the traditional vaccines were initially developed for and tested on military members* (or members of society that were unable to protest, such as orphans or mentally ill. Yes, vaccines certainly have a dark side to them, like much of medical science. We can only strive to learn from mistakes) which bypassed the commercial benefits that modern pharmaceutical companies must weigh when deciding to pursue certain avenues of research.
All of that is a long way of saying: new vaccines are rare. Even rarer because many of the easy targets have been done–vaccine development requires a high level of creativity and understanding of disease progression. The researchers that developed an experimental staph vaccine display both of these qualities: a team at the University of Iowa this month propose a new approach to creating a staph vaccine that targets proteins produced by Streptococcus aureus’s that are highly involved in the disease caused by the bacterium instead of the traditional targets on the bacterium’s cell wall. The vaccine successfully protected rabbits–a controversial model for humans–and the researchers now hope to start human studies soon.
This is fascinating research because it shows the ingenuity of vaccine researchers to move beyond traditional techniques, but also demonstrates how difficult such development is, since there is no one-size-fits-all solution to creating a new vaccine. Unfortunately so many common infectious diseases have few current defenses we can employ, and few incentives for pharmaceutical companies to pursue the necessary research. Staph is a more attractive target than, say, dengue, because it does cause about 20,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone. All of this is not meant to be a diatribe against the pharmaceutical companies; honestly, I sympathize and understand why they make the choices that they do. Vaccine research on diseases unlikely to provide a profit can only be pursued if the company expects to reap intangible, good-will profits from the paying populations (similar to companies that take advantage of consumers’ attraction to green business practices); but how does a company get credit for work on diseases that many have never heard of? Its a serious conundrum, especially as these diseases expand their endemic areas into developed countries.
*To see an incredible video of LSD testing on British military members, click here.