Researchers have successfully assembled the virus outside a cell, which could lead to better vaccines against the disease in livestock.

Researchers have taken a step towards producing better vaccines against bluetongue – an important disease of livestock – after successfully assembling the virus outside a cell. 

This research, published today (August 1 2011) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could provide scientists with the tools to develop vaccines with useful new properties.

Bluetongue BBSRCProf Polly Roy of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the team, said: “We’ve developed the tools and provided the instruction manual for developing new, more effective bluetongue vaccines. This will not only be useful for combating bluetongue, but will provide insights into fundamental virus assembly that will be useful for producing vaccines for other viruses.”

Bluetongue is a viral disease of cows and sheep that is transmitted by biting midges.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

BBSRC chief executive Prof Douglas Kell said: “This is an exciting development and offers great potential for future vaccine development. Using the tools of synthetic biology, we are now able to assemble viruses piece by piece in a way that gives us far greater understanding of how they work. This approach could allow us to make safer and more effective vaccines against a range of viral diseases.”

Prof Roy and her team synthesised each of the virus’s gene and protein building blocks separately and then combined them in the right order in order to produce a functional virus particle.

Prof Roy said: “When we injected the virus particles into some midge cells, they started behaving and replicating just as we would expect a wild virus to do. This was a really exciting moment. What had previously been a complex of proteins and other molecules whirred into activity and started making copies of itself.”

This new approach provides an assembly kit for the virus which could allow scientists to design vaccines with useful properties. Developing a vaccine that is tagged with a marker, for example, would make it easier to tell the difference between animals that have been vaccinated and those that have suffered the disease.

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