Friday Fun Fact: The flu vaccine is usually grown in fertilised chicken eggs

This is the first of what I hope to be a weekly post, under the heading of Friday Fun Fact. Over the years I have amassed a rather large number of, what I call fun facts, little bit of information which might surprise one. So keep an eye out for my posts! Anyway, onto this weeks Friday Fun Fact.

The Flu Vaccine is Usually Grown in Fertilised Chicken Eggs

Eggs

Thanks to eggs, millions of people have been vaccinated against influenza

History

So, why eggs I hear you ask. Well, it all started with the Spanish flu, the world-wide pandemic of 1918. Physicians tried everything and anything to restrict Spanish flu, even resorting to bleeding patients. But there was only one method that showed signs of success, transfusing blood from people who had the flu and recovered into new patients. In the early 1930’s, Ernest William Goodpasture, a physician with an interest in pathology and infectious diseases, working with others at Vanderbilt University, invented a method for growing viruses in chicken embryos and fertilised chicken eggs.

Following on from Goodpasture’s methods, the US military developed the first approved inactivated form of influenza in the early 1940’s. For those who are unaware of how vaccines work, the general idea is that a person become “infected” with a damaged form of the virus they wish to be protected against. The person’s body is fooled into thinking that this inactive version is the real deal and as such creates antibodies that attack the virus, signing the body to basically, eat them!

The Future of Flu Vaccination

One of the major draw backs of using eggs is that the vaccinations produced from them can be somewhat troublesome for people with egg allergies. But there is hope as there is ongoing research into non-egg based methods of vaccination production. One such method is to use animal cells in large vats. This would bypass the need for eggs, but also it would be rather easy to scale up the production.

The other week while I was attending ESOF2012 (my posts about the event can be found here), I attended a talk by one of the rock stars of science, Dr Craig Venter (you can see Venter’s ESOF2012 talk at here) . During the talk he talked about he work in synthetic biology, he talked about how his institute, the J. Craig Venter Institute, is sequencing flu viruses from infected animals and humans, creating a database of known viral genomes. What’s more, they are creating a programme with will predict the rate of mutation that will occur in flu viruses. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Institute is creating synthetic segments of these every flu virus. What this means is that when a new virus appears, it is sequenced by World Health Organization and within 12 hours of getting the sequence data, the Institute has created a synthetic copy of the genome, which is sent off for large-scale production to create the vaccination.

But the most amazing part of all this is that they think they should be able to predict what the virus will be before it occurs each year and before WHO states what the vaccination should be for that year. Meaning that the J. Craig Venter Institute would have the vaccinations ready for scale up long before it is needed. The power of science eh?

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