DNA vaccination

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DNA vaccination is a technique for protecting an organism against disease by injecting it with genetically engineered DNA to produce an immunological response. Nucleic acid vaccines are still experimental, and have been applied to a number of viral, bacterial and parasitic models of disease, as well as to several tumour models. DNA vaccines have a number of advantages over conventional vaccines, including the ability to induce a wider range of immune response types.

Vaccines are among the greatest achievements of modern medicine – in industrial nations, they have eliminated naturally-occurring cases of smallpox, and nearly eliminated polio, while other diseases, such as typhus, rotavirus, hepatitis A and B and others are well controlled.[1] Conventional vaccines, however, only cover a small number of diseases, and infections that lack effective vaccines kill millions of people every year, with AIDS, hepatitis C and malaria being particularly common.

First generation vaccines are whole-organism vaccines – either live and weakened, or killed forms.[2] Live, attenuated vaccines, such as smallpox and polio vaccines, are able to induce killer T-cell (TC or CTL) responses, helper T-cell (TH) responses and antibody immunity. However, there is a small risk that attenuated forms of a pathogen can revert to a dangerous form, and may still be able to cause disease in immunocompromised people (such as those with AIDS). While killed vaccines do not have this risk, they cannot generate specific killer T cell responses, and may not work at all for some diseases.[2] In order to minimise these risks, so-called second generation vaccines were developed. These are subunit vaccines, consisting of defined protein antigens (such as tetanus or diphtheria toxoid) or recombinant protein components (such as the hepatitis B surface antigen). These, too, are able to generate TH and antibody responses, but not killer T cell responses.

DNA vaccines are third generation vaccines, and are made up of a small, circular piece of bacterial DNA (called a plasmid) that has been genetically engineered to produce one or two specific proteins (antigens) from a pathogen. The vaccine DNA is injected into the cells of the body, where the "inner machinery" of the host cells "reads" the DNA and converts it into pathogenic proteins. Because these proteins are recognised as foreign, when they are processed by the host cells and displayed on their surface, the immune system is alerted, which then triggers a range of immune responses.[1][2] These DNA vaccines developed from “failed” gene therapy experiments. The first demonstration of a plasmid-induced immune response was when mice inoculated with a plasmid expressing human growth hormone elicited antibodies instead of altering growth.[3]

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