There’s no question that the development of new and better vaccines was one of the greatest medical advancements in the 20th century. The only question is what will the 21st century hold for vaccines?
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the allocation of vaccine research funds and a heightened emphasis on vaccines’ role in overall population health. Currently, researchers are focused on three areas when it comes to improving vaccines: increasing effectiveness, decreasing cost, and improving delivery. Advancements to vaccine development and distribution are making these goals more of a reality.
One of the most promising advancements for future vaccine development is the use of genomics. Genomics is now enabling researchers to identify fine-tuned targets by determining the role of each protein in a pathogen. With this information, researchers can focus on specific proteins to develop vaccines. Using genomics, researchers have developed a number of possible new vaccines, including TB vaccines and vaccines for parasitic diseases, such as malaria.
New techniques utilizing genomics are also expected to impact vaccine development for chronic noninfectious diseases. Chronic conditions including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease have been the center of major efforts as the cost of care continues to rise for a growing aging population. The first successful vaccine preventing cancer was the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, which prevents certain strains of cervical, anal, penile and throat cancer. The success of this vaccine spurred additional research to focus on other cancer preventative vaccines. Vaccines aimed to prevent cancer and therapeutic vaccines for Alzheimer’s are the focus of clinical trials and offer promise of improving healthcare and the lives of many individuals.
Another major area of focus is on the delivery of vaccines. Vaccines are typically given in the form of the shot and stored carefully at a cool temperature around 40°F. If not properly administered or stored, the vaccines risk losing effectiveness. Current protocol poses a challenge for the delivery of vaccines in some rural areas, and further research could aid in making delivery more reliable across a wider variety of environments and settings. We have already seen some progress. An influenza vaccine in the form of a nasal spray has been approved to prevent the seasonal flu. Additionally, a microneedle patch is being developed and could make it easier to vaccinate people against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.
While we can’t predict the future of vaccines, it’s clear the future is bright. If the industry succeeds in improving the development and administration of immunizations, there is no doubt that vaccines will continue to be a major driver in the advancement of healthcare in the 21st century.