With a vaccine industry that’s been dormant for decades, fears of a pandemic avian flu outbreak have re-ignited the race for protection against the deadly disease.
Now, one Amsterdam-based company is using next generation technology to tackle an age-old problem.
Medicine has come a long way since newsreels about the 1957 flu pandemic touted the latest vaccines “produced at the highest rate possible through the standard slow method of incubating the virus in eggs."
But in many respects, vaccine production is still stuck in the 1950s. So President Bush is offering the drug industry a nearly $3 billion shot in the arm to rocket vaccine science into the future.
"By bringing cell-culture technology from the research laboratory onto the production line,” Bush said in a Nov. 1 speech to the National Institutes of Health, “we should be able to produce enough vaccine for every American within six months of the start of a pandemic."
That may be so, but only if a pandemic is years away.
Many experts and investors consider the Netherlands-based biotechnology company Crucell to be at the forefront of cell-based vaccine technology. But company chief executive Dr. Ronald Brus says his firm isn't even close to being ready to crank out the hundreds of millions of shots a year needed for a pandemic.
"A best case scenario at this moment in time -- and I don't want to be overly optimistic -- would still be a three-year timeframe,” he said in a recent interview with CNBC.
Crucell and its flu vaccine partner, Sanofi Aventis, recently won a nearly $100 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to speed things along.
That money, plus more cash from Sanofi, puts Crucell in the unusual position of being able to plow all of its revenue straight into research and development.
The company used to have just three people working on the flu vaccine project in its labs outside Amsterdam. Today there are 40 taking old human cells from the retina and feeding them so they can multiply in this chamber. The cells are then stockpiled so there's enough experimental flu vaccine available for lab tests.
Dr. Jaap Goudsmit, Crucell's Chief Scientific Officer, is confident the technology will work.
"There's nobody doubting that ten years from now there will be no egg-based vaccine anymore,” he said. “it will be all cell-based."
A so-called "clean room" at Crucell is actually filled with the flu. In fact, inside this freezer the virus is being stored at about 80-degrees below zero centigrade -- just waiting to be mixed with human cells inside this bioreactor.
After the human cells and the virus are churned in here for just one to two weeks, the vaccine's finished. The old-fashioned way with eggs takes months.
"So what we did is replace the chicken egg thing with a bioreactor,” said Brus. “And we could make faster, cleaner and much bigger quantities of the vaccine in a shorter period of time."
Crucell is in a race against time with companies like Chiron and Novavax -- all working on different types of cell-based vaccine technology.
Brus says he doesn't like to brag or boast but “we just got a beautiful set of cards, right. And we're playing a certain game… but we still need to win the game.”