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Designing vaccines by computer

Having vaccines developed by computer may sound unnerving but the increasing role of computer modelling in the development of new vaccines could bring new products onto the market quicker, benefiting patients and saving pharmaceutical companies millions of pounds.

Researchers using informatics and computer modelling can help scientists to uncover and harness the hidden patterns in the wealth of DNA and protein sequences that modern bioscience generates and cut the number of compounds drug companies need to test when searching for new vaccines.

Researchers funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and working at the Edward Jenner Institute for Vaccine Research are using a very simple concept to help speed up the development of vaccines. They are studying fragments of 'foreign' proteins that have been shown by experiments to effectively trigger a response by the immune system. They look for common patterns in their sequences or structures and use the information to create a theoretical model of what is needed for one of these fragments to trigger an immune response. They can then employ computers to search for similar sequences in the thousands of sequences now available. When the search finds something promising it can be experimentally tested to see if it will trigger a response.

Dr Darren Flower, an international leader in this work, said, "A crucial feature of this search strategy is that we don't have to know what a foreign protein actually does in order to identify it as having fragments that that could make good vaccines. This approach has the potential to significantly reduce the number of proteins that we need to experimentally test to develop new vaccines to protect both humans and economically important livestock."

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, said, "Predictive biology, such as this work, has the potential to bring vaccines and medicines to patients faster, and may also offer the potential to re-model existing vaccines to see whether they can regain their effectiveness against viruses and bacteria that have evolved resistance."



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