Since the introduction of two polio vaccines 60 years ago, this terrible disease has gone from killing millions (and crippling much more) to almost elimination. But the gap between almost disappearing and the complete elimination of the virus proved difficult to bridge. As long as a small reservoir of infectious diseases like that survives, it is possible that he can roar again.
Barriers to elimination include the Western anti-vaccination movement and Islamic fundamentalists who oppose modern medicine, but there are also technical challenges. This vaccine requires refrigeration, which is not easily obtained without electricity. The discovery of a stable vaccine at room temperature can be a game-changer.
"Stabilization is not rocket science, so most academics don't pay too much attention to this field," Woo-Jin Shin of the University of Southern California said in a statement. "However, no matter how great a drug or vaccine is, if it's not stable enough to be transported, it's not of much use."
Shin is the first author of a paper at the mBio to announce a stable polio vaccine, which is effective after being stored for four weeks at room temperature. There is nothing new in this concept. Frozen measles, typhoid, and meningococcal vaccines have allowed them to be distributed to many remote locations, helping to change the waves of this infection.
However, previous attempts to freeze-dry and rehydrate polio vaccines undermined their effectiveness and the methods used in other cases were unsuccessful. Shin found a way to use lab techniques that enable faster testing of material combinations.
With only 22 cases of polio reported around the world last year – and high hopes that existing vaccines and portable solar units will complete the work – the wide application of Shen's work is far from guaranteed.
Even if this turns out to be the case, however, the techniques used here might apply to freeze-dried vaccines or other complicated drugs. The work happened because Shin's supervisor, Professor Jae Jung, spoke with a friend from his college days, Dr. Byeong S. Chang, who now runs Integrity Bio, a company that works for stabilization.
"He and I decided to do this because we are getting older and we need to contribute directly to human health and life," Jung said. "Creative ideas always start with food and drink."
Shin worked on an inactive virus, which was delivered via injection, and formed an initial breakthrough against polio. An easier administered oral vaccine, which uses a weak form of the virus, largely replaces this for a while. However, the attenuated virus causes paralysis in three cases per million doses, causing some countries to switch back to the original.