The Role of Biotechnology in the Development of Vaccines

JAKARTA. In order to control the disease that has infected more than 23 million people worldwide, numerous companies have taken their shot at creating vaccines and drugs for COVID-19. One of the keys to finding the correct COVID-19 is the application of biotechnology. 

Biotechnology is a discipline which studies the massive production of goods using living materials. Vaccine is a biological product which is given to individuals to strengthen their immune system towards the attacks of bacteria and pathogens. Vaccine can consist of a certain pathogen that has been weakened or antigen components of that particular pathogen, usually a protein found on the surface of a cell or a viral particle which can be recognized by the antibody in the immune system.

Ihsan Tria Pramanda, a faculty member of the Biotechnology Department at Indonesia International Institute for Life Science (i3L) stated that the development of vaccines are closely related to biotechnology. The techniques of modern biotechnology such as genetical engineering and cell culture enable an effective, quick and economical development of vaccines. Recombinant DNA technology enables antigen of a certain pathogen to be produced in a host cell which is relatively non pathogenic (e.g. E. coli or yeast), so that a direct harvest from the original pathogen is not required.

“Apart from that, there is also an ongoing development on gene-based vaccines (DNA or RNA) from pathogens (including that of COVID-19) so that the production of antigen can occur in the bodies of vaccine receivers,” explained Ihsan in his official statement.

Commercial vaccine production also implements an aspect of biotechnology called bioprocess which includes upstream processes (i.e. the preparation for growth media, production cells and optimization of production condition) and downstream processes (i.e. product harvest, product purification and management of waste production).

Ihsan explained that the conventional method to making vaccines relies on the type of vaccine being produced. Some vaccines use pathogenic cells or particles directly. For this type of vaccine, pathogens are grown directly on a specific growth medium (or on a live cell culture for viral pathogens) and then harvested after reaching a certain number. These pathogenic cells or pathogens are then weakened (attenuated) or killed (inactivated) using different methods such as by heating or the use of certain chemicals. Before the formulation of the vaccine, the production process for this type of vaccine that needs to be completed is relatively simple as facilities for massive productions are widely available. 

“However, there is still the risk that the pathogen can be active again and the titer of the antigen remains limited,” added Ihsan.

For protein-based vaccines, the coding gene of the protein can be inserted into the plasmid and transformed into the host cell (e.g. E.coli or mammalian cells) which can then can express that gene into protein. The protein produced is then harvested, purified and formulated into vaccine. The production of this type of vaccine is relatively more complex as it requires extra operation, but it can produce a really high level of antigen titer.

The production of gene-based vaccines is simpler due to the arrangement of DNA and RNA that can be adjusted to needs and multiplied quickly and easily (based on the concept of genetic replication). The weakness of this type of vaccine is that it still cannot be proven in an in vivo way so that it is still considered an untapped alternative technology.

Ihsan stated that biotechnology is influential towards minimizing health risks of a vaccine. Therefore, biotechnology can ensure the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine. Biotechnology can help a vaccine production starting from the design and component exploration processes, everything needs to be antigenic and immunogenic components which can ensure effectiveness of the vaccine when it enters the body of the receiver. 

Moreover, during a massive vaccine production, there is the need to make sure that the final product is up to standard. Protein vaccine must be free from production medium residues, components of production host cells and external contaminants. 

“On cell-based or pathogenic particles-based vaccines, attenuation and inactivation must be accurate and effective in order to avoid reactivation of pathogen and to stop side effects from happening in the bodies of the vaccine receivers,“ explained Ihsan.

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