A patient receiving a flu shot.
In the not too distant future, the phrase “shooting up” could take on a whole new meaning. At least if the U.S. Army has its way. Wired‘s Danger Room blog reported a few days ago that the military is seeking bids for a high-tech form of vaccination that could be delivered quickly and efficiently to a large number of troops in the heat of battle. More specifically, the Pentagon wants a DNA vaccine that can be administered via a literal shot to the arm—and a jolt of electricity. All without causing too much “discomfort” to the patient, of course.
Suffice it to say that this futuristic-sounding vaccine would be a far cry from what you and I received as children. As last year’s swine flu epidemic made painfully clear, our current methods of vaccine development, which have remained essentially unchanged for decades, are woefully outdated. The vaccines take too long—upwards of seven months—to produce, are easily prone to failure if not prepared correctly and, in many cases, lose their potency after only a year. These failings have helped draw attention to DNA-based vaccines, cocktails of genetically engineered plasmids which offer the promise of inducing a stronger, and more targeted, immune response. Where regular vaccines are slow to develop and hard to combine, DNA vaccines can be made relatively quickly and mixed together to ward off multiple pathogens at once. They are also generally safer to produce and administer, more durable and can be scaled more easily.
While scientists may still be years away from delivering on some of the loftier promises made about stem cells—treating diseases like Parkinson’s and growing entire organs from scratch, to name a few—they are finally beginning to make good on some simpler, but far more practical, applications. Like growing blood from hematopoietic stem cells, or bone marrow stem cells, for transfusions.
On the battlefield, blood is a particularly valuable commodity since it is always in high demand but scarce supply. Wounded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan must endure weeks of waiting to receive “fresh” deliveries of donated blood that, by the time they arrive, have become stale—if not expired outright. Add on top of that the fact that the stuff is prone to contamination or carrying infectious diseases and that it needs to be matched up to a soldier’s blood type, and you have a wildly inefficient process in desperate need of improvement.