Could Vaccine Prevent Even Heart Attacks? The question may sound weird to many, but it really appears so, possibly reducing further need of several expensive medications for lifelong use. A good number of academic institutions, besides some biotechnology companies, are taking rapid strides in the newer areas of vaccine development to protect people from various non-infectious serious ailments, including some fatal disorders, such as heart attacks.
In this article, I shall deliberate on this area.
Picking up the thread:
One of the critically important preventive therapy to save millions of precious lives is – vaccination. Way back in 1796, Edward Anthony Jenner not only discovered the process of vaccination, but also developed the world’s first smallpox vaccine to save mankind from this highly infectious and life-threatening disease. As per published data, prior to this discovery, the mortality rate for smallpox was as high as up to 35 percent.
Very appropriately, Jenner is often referred to as the “Father of Immunology”, whose pioneering work has saved more lives than the work of any other person, in that era. Later, in 1901 Emil Von Behring received the first Nobel Prize (ever) for discovering Diphtheria serum therapy for yet another highly infectious disease, affecting mostly infants and children.
Nevertheless, the pioneering work of Edward Anthony Jenner laid the primary substructure of immunology, which continued to be developed as a robust prophylactic measure against various types of, initially infectious and communicable diseases.
Expanded scope for vaccines:
Gradually, the global focus of vaccine development started expanding from prophylactic vaccination for communicable disease such as smallpox, diphtheria, malaria and pneumonia; to non-infectious disorders, like cancer, diabetes and atherosclerosis that often leads to heart attacks and strokes; including several therapeutic vaccines, especially for cancer. The list continues.
In other words, from inducing long-life immunity against exogenous or foreign antigens in infectious diseases caused by microorganisms, to inducing similar immune reaction against the body’s own molecules, which are responsible for precipitating seriously debilitating or life-threatening pathological changes. These include conditions, such as cardiovascular or metabolic disorders and many other chronic ailments, including various types of the deadly disease – cancer.
Would vaccines prevent even heart attacks?
Let me now get back to where I started from: Would vaccines prevent even heart attacks?
Medical experts often say, until a sudden heart attack occurs, patients with atherosclerosis may show no symptoms for decades. This epitomizes the seriousness of this disorder in human population.
Since long, atherosclerosis used to be considered as ‘a lipid-driven disease caused by the continuous accumulation of cholesterol in the arterial intima.’ However, that concept is changing now based on enough scientific evidences. These clearly indicate that ‘atherosclerosis is predominately a chronic low-grade inflammatory disease of the vessel wall with an interplay of humoral, cellular, and locally produced pro-inflammatory factors.’
Atherosclerosis is a chronic low-grade inflammatory disease:
In the above context, a recent research study has arrested the attention of many medical scientists, including several top cardiologists, across the world. This article, published on June 19, 2017, in the peer-reviewed European Heart Journal reported the development of a vaccine that induces an effective immune response in mice to significantly reduce plasma lipids, systemic and vascular inflammation, and atherosclerosis lesions in the aorta.
Leverages the immune system of the body:
In simple words, this cholesterol-lowering vaccine demonstrates how the immune system of the body can be leveraged to lower blood lipids, signaling a strong potential to make drugs, such as statins, possibly irrelevant.
This is the first intervention study based on a well-established, translational mouse model for hyperlipidemia and atherosclerosis. The research found, as compared with the control group, the vaccine reduced total and LDL cholesterol levels in the mice, as well as reduced signs of fatty build-up in the arteries.
Potentially an effective and economical approach:
The authors believe, the vaccine may represent an effective and economical approach, with higher patient compliance, in the treatment and prevention of similar cardiovascular pathologies. Taking the study to its next stage, they have already enrolled human volunteers to conduct the phase one study, for a detailed scientific assessment on how this vaccine will work for the patients suffering from similar disorders.
Another interesting development:
To give just a flavor of the progress of vaccine development in several areas of serious and life-threatening non-communicable diseases, I am quoting below the following interesting study:
June 1, 2016 issue of ‘The Independent’ reported that scientists of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumors as if they were a virus. The researchers had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients’ immune systems responded by producing “killer” T-cells designed to attack cancer.
This vaccine was found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumors in mice. At the same time, such vaccines are fast and inexpensive to produce, and virtually any tumor antigen (a protein attacked by the immune system) can be encoded by RNA, the report said.
How expensive are the R&D costs for vaccines?
In this context, an important related question may well be raised: How expensive are the R&D costs for vaccines? According to a paper published by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health (NIH):
“A vaccine candidate entering pre-clinical development in 2011 would be expected to achieve licensure in 2022; all costs are reported in 2022 Canadian dollars (CAD). After applying a 9 percent cost of capital, the capitalized total R&D expenditure amounts to $ 474.88 million CAD.”
Some key issues and challenges:
Scientific breakthroughs in genetics and biotechnological research, supported by state of art tools related to information technology, a wide range of vaccine development initiatives, targeting both in infectious and non-infectious diseases, are making rapid progress. However, as I had said before, there are some key issues and challenges that need to be addressed, simultaneously. A few examples of which are as follows:
- Actual cost of vaccines goes much beyond their R&D expenses. This is mainly because of dedicated and highly specialized manufacturing facilities required for their mass-scale production, and then for the distribution of the same, mostly using cold-chains.
- Around 60 percent of the production costs of vaccines are fixed in nature (National Health Policy Forum. 25. January 2006:14). Thus, such products will need to have a decent market size to be profitable.
- Unlike many other medications for chronic ailments, which need to be taken for a long duration, vaccines are administered for a limited number of times, restricting their business potential.
Full neutralization of this cost before keeping a modest margin, could make such high-end vaccines relatively expensive for patients, without adequate financial incentives from the Government.
The discovery of the interesting vaccine to prevent both fatal and non-fatal heart attacks followed an interesting path, and took a long time of around one and a half decade to go for the phase I human trial. Putting together the facts from the available scientific literatures, the long and arduous path of this journey may be, I reckon, summed up, as follows:
An article published by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) on June 9, 2014 first reported that it’s plausible to prevent heart attacks with vaccination. Nonetheless, it all started even much before that, when in 2003, a group of researchers in France studying families with very high cholesterol levels and very early heart attacks, discovered a specific cholesterol regulator. Mutations in the related gene seemed to be responsible for very high cholesterol levels, and early heart attacks. Further research on the subject continued thereafter, based on this novel finding.
Thereafter, in 2014, HSCI scientists collaborating with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania developed a “genome editing” approach for permanently reducing cholesterol levels in mice with a single injection, potentially reducing heart attack risk by up to 90 percent, reported this Harvard article. ‘Circulation Research’ – a journal of the American Heart Association, published the study online on June 10, 2014.
Currently, in mid 2017, from the article published in the peer-reviewed ‘European Heart Journal’ we get to know that development of a vaccine that can prevent heart attacks is going for phase I clinical trial, following several well-tested and scientific evidence based promises.
The outcome of the final phases of this study will now be keenly followed by the experts. Others will optimistically wait for the D-day – virtually the dawn of a new paradigm of preventing heart attacks through vaccination, well before it can result into any fatal or crippling consequences.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.