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Editors: K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner
Date: 2008
The Gale Encyclopedia of Science
From: The Gale Encyclopedia of Science(Vol. 6. 4th ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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A vaccine is a medical preparation given to provide immunity from a disease. Vaccines use a variety of different substances ranging from dead microorganisms to genetically engineered antigens to defend the body against potentially harmful microorganisms. Effective vaccines change the immune system by promoting the development of antibodies that can quickly and effectively attack a disease causing microorganism when it enters the body, preventing disease development.

The development of vaccines against diseases ranging from polio and smallpox to tetanus and measles is considered among one of the great accomplishments of medical science. Contemporary researchers are continually attempting to develop new vaccinations against such diseases as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), cancer, influenza, and other diseases.

Physicians have long observed that individuals who were exposed to an infectious disease and survived were somehow protected against that disease in the future. Prior to the invention of vaccines, however, infectious diseases were common and devastating.

Vaccines operate by stimulating the immune system to produce components such as antibodies that will help fight the actual infection. Depending on the vaccine, the formulation may use an intact version of the disease-causing virus (albeit weakened in some way so that it is not able to cause the disease, was used in the Sabin oral polio vaccine) or a fragment of a protein from the virus or bacteria that is critical to the establishment or the progression of the infection. An example of the latter approach is the use of a protein involved in the binding of the virus or bacteria to host cells. The antibodies produced can block the binding, and so hamper the development of an infection. Another example is the vaccine for Streptococcus pneumoniae, which uses bacterial polysaccharides (carbohydrates found in bacteria which contain large numbers of monosaccharides, a simple sugar). Streptococcus=related diseases often involve the coating of the bacteria in a sugary capsule composed of the saccharides; thus, antibodies against this component can be a useful means of combating the infection.

Effective vaccines have limited many of the life-threatening infectious diseases. In the United States, children starting kindergarten are required to be immunized against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, and several other diseases. Other vaccinations are used only by populations at risk, individuals exposed to disease, or when exposure to a disease is likely to occur due to travel to an area where the disease is common. These include influenza, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, and Hepatitis A and B.

The influenza virus is one of the more problematic diseases because the viruses constantly change, making development of vaccines difficult. Scientists grapple with predicting what particular influenza strain will predominate in a given year. When the prediction is accurate, the vaccine is effective. When they are not, the vaccine is often of little help.

The classical methods of vaccine preparation vary in safety and efficiency. In general, vaccines that use live bacterial or viral products are extremely effective when they work, but carry a greater risk of causing disease. This is most threatening to individuals whose immune systems are weakened, such as individuals with leukemia. Children with leukemia are advised not to take the oral polio vaccine because they are at greater risk of developing the disease. Vaccines which do not include a live virus or bacteria tend to be safer, but their protection may not be as great.

The classical types of vaccines are all limited in their dependence on biological products, which often must be kept cold, may have a limited life, and can be difficult to produce. The development of recombinant Page 4540  |  Top of Articlevaccines—those using chromosomal parts (or DNA) from a different organism—has generated hope for a new generation of man-made vaccines. The hepatitis B vaccine, one of the first recombinant vaccines to be approved for human use, is made using recombinant yeast cells genetically engineered to include the gene coding for the hepatitis B antigen. Because the vaccine contains the antigen, it is capable of stimulating antibody production against hepatitis B without the risk that live hepatitis B vaccine carries by introducing the virus into the blood stream.

As medical knowledge has increased—particularly in the field of DNA vaccines—researchers have set their sights on possible new vaccines for cancer, melanoma, AIDS, influenza, and numerous others. Many improved vaccines have been approved, including several genetically engineered (recombinant) types which first developed during an experiment in 1990. These recombinant vaccines involve the use of so-called naked DNA. Microscopic portions of a viruses’ DNA are injected into the patient. The patient’s own cells then adopt that DNA, which is then duplicated when the cell divides, becoming part of each new cell. Researchers have reported success using this method in laboratory trials against influenza and malaria. These DNA vaccines work from inside the cell, not just from the cell’s surface, as other vaccines do, allowing a stronger cell-mediated fight against the disease. Also, because the influenza virus constantly changes its surface proteins, the immune system or vaccines cannot change quickly enough to fight each new strain. However, DNA vaccines work on a core protein, which researchers believe should not be affected by these surface changes.

Since the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s, a worldwide search against the disease has resulted in clinical trials for more than 25 experimental vaccines. These range from whole-inactivated viruses to genetically engineered types. Some have focused on a therapeutic approach to help infected individuals to fend off further illness by stimulating components of the immune system; others have genetically engineered a protein on the surface of HIV to prompt immune response against the virus; and yet others attempted to protect uninfected individuals. The challenges in developing a protective vaccine include the fact that HIV appears to have multiple viral strains and mutates quickly. As of 2006, no AIDS vaccine is approved for use.

Stimulating the immune system is also considered key by many researchers seeking a vaccine for cancer. Currently numerous clinical trials for cancer vaccines are in progress, with researchers developing experimental vaccines against cancer of the breast, colon, and lung, among other areas. Promising studies of vaccines made from the patient’s own tumor cells and genetically engineered vaccines have been reported. Other experimental techniques attempt to penetrate the body in ways that could stimulate vigorous immune responses. These include using bacteria or viruses, both known to be efficient travelers in the body, as carriers of vaccine antigens. Such bacteria or viruses would be treated or engineered to make them incapable of causing illness.

The reluctance of some parents to vaccinate their children due to potential side effects has limited vaccination use. Parents in the United States and several European countries have balked at vaccinating their children with the pertussis vaccine due to the development of neurological complications in a small number of children given the vaccine. Unfortunately, the risk of infection is far greater than the risk of vaccine-related complications. Because of incomplete immunization, whooping cough remains common in the United States, with 30,000 cases and about 25 deaths due to complications annually.


allan, Arthur. Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. New York: W.W. Horton, 2007.

Levine, Myron M., James B. Kaper, Rino Rappuoli, Margaret A. Liu, and Michael F. Good (eds). New Generation Vaccines. 3rd ed. London: Informa Healthcare, 2004.


Borchers AT, Keen CL, Shoenfeld Y, Silva J Jr, Gershwin ME. “Vaccines, viruses, and voodoo.” J. Investig. Allergol. Clin. Immunol. 12 (2002) 155-68.

Dodd D. “Benefits of combination vaccines: effective vaccination on a simplified schedule.” Am. J. Manag. Care. 9 Suppl. 1(2003) S6-12.

Machiels JP, van Baren N, Marchand M. “Peptide-based cancer vaccines.” Semin. Oncol 29 (2002) 494-502.

Mwau M, McMichael AJ. “A review of vaccines for HIV prevention.” J. Gene Med. 5(2003) 3-10.

Sibley CL. “Smallpox vaccination revisited.” Machiels JP, van Baren N, Marchand M. “Peptide-based cancer vaccines.” Am J Nurs. 102 (2002) 26-32.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2830102420