Monday, June 21, 2010

Seth Berkley's TED Talk on HIV/Flu Vaccine Development

Seth Berkley's recent TED talk focuses on HIV and influenza vaccine research.  In general, I think the talk does a good job of reviewing why it is so hard to develop an AIDS vaccine or a universal flu vaccine.  However, there are some times when I thought that Dr. Berkley was overselling the research results.

For example, Dr. Berkley says "let's take a look at a video that we're debuting at TED, for the first time, on how an effective HIV vaccine might work."  Now, I think the video does do a very good job illustrating the general principle of how vaccines work, but it does not provide any specific details regarding how an effective HIV vaccine can be developed.

At another point in the video, Dr. Berkley suggests that a universal flu vaccine can be created by designing vaccines that target conserved regions on the surface of the influenza vaccine.  These proteins would be located in roughly the equivalent of the blue region of the following 3D rendition of a flu virus (from http://johnfenzel.typepad.com/john_fenzels_blog/images/flu_image.jpg):


As you might imagine, these proteins have not been used because the scientists believed that the immune system would not respond well to them because the H and N spikes (the green and yellow things in the picture above) would block most antibodies produced during the immune response.  Judging from a quick search of the internet, it seems like most images agree with the picture shown above (and in the TED talk).

To be fair, I found one example of a flu virus with less densely packed surface proteins, and the candidate proteins (M2e proteins) may be large enough to clear enough room to interact with the host antibodies.  However, I fear this new vaccine design may be based on data which shows encouraging results during pre-clinical research but is not very effective during clinical trails.  That said, I would obviously be pleasantly surprised if this design does lead to a successful universal flu vaccine, and I honestly do think Dr. Berkley does a good job of broadly describing of how new technology can aid in rational vaccine design.

I also thought that Dr. Berkley did an excellent job describing how changes in vaccine production could significantly increase the effectiveness of flu vaccines.  Namely, Dr. Berkley points out that flu vaccines have been produced from chicken eggs ever since the 1940s.  Different flu strains vary in their ability to grow in chicken eggs, and production of flu vaccines using chicken eggs takes "more than half a year."  Dr. Berkley proposes a method that would allow companies to produce flu vaccines in E. coli.  I think this is an excellent strategy that could significant improve the process of vaccine development.

I think it is also worth mentioning that Dr. Berkley does acknowledge how hard it is to predict the future of vaccine development.  When asked to give a time line to expect an effective HIV vaccine, Dr. Berkley responds "everybody says it's 10 years, but it's been 10 years every 10 years."  In general, it is always important for people to always interpret preliminary research findings with a grain of salt.

Overall, I think Dr. Berkley does a good job providing an interesting talk about a very important subject.

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