Recent research on possible new vaccines – against opioid addiction and Alzheimer’s disease, to name a couple – serve as a reminder of many key issues around medical research, especially when it comes to new ways to immunize the public.
For one thing, there’s the tremendous excitement involved in hoping that a disease as devastating as Alzheimer’s, for which there is no cure, or as deadly as the opioid crisis in our country, could be greatly lessened through a simple medical procedure. It boosts our appreciation for what vaccines already are doing for us – wiping out polio in our country, making smallpox extinct worldwide. Diseases that once were common, such as measles, have become rarities n the developed world.
At the same time, we have to temper our excitement when it comes to research early in the development of a possible vaccine. News reports might make it sound as though a sure-fire prevention for Alzheimer’s disease is right around the corner, but many attempts at new vaccines eventually prove fruitless. Vaccines are required to show safety and effectiveness through many years of research and multiple trials that prove their worth..
At the very early stages, one thing to understand is that the first trials of a possible vaccine generally use mice or another animal as the subjects. In diabetes studies, so many promising developments in mice that never worked out in humans, it has led to the saying among diabetes researchers that “mice lie.” That doesn’t mean these studies weren’t valid – in the early stages, it’s far safer, quicker and smarter to work with animal subjects. It’s an important first step, but one that doesn’t always pan out to a medical treatment for people.
It is especially exciting to note that the research on a vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease was conducted here in Texas, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The study, published in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, found that the vaccine safely helped prevent the buildup of two proteins in the brain that are implicated in the Alzheimer’s.
As reported by USA Today:
Doris Lambracht-Washington, a professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said researchers believe the vaccine could extend lives by preventing the disease from developing.
“If the onset of the disease could be delayed by even five years, that would be enormous for the patients and their families,” Lambracht-Washington said in a statement. “The number of dementia cases could drop by half.”
But Health News Review, a website devoted to holding high standards for medical report, said that USA Today should have made it clear “that success in animals often doesn’t translate to benefits in humans, and that other treatments targeting these proteins have not panned out.”
There also are new reports about a vaccine to reduce suffering and deaths from opioid addiction. According to a report in HealthDay:
Tests in mice showed that the vaccine blocked the pain-numbing effects of synthetic opioids and also protected the mice against overdose from the drugs, according to researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
It’s wonderful to think that, even if we have to wait a long time for the final results, one or both of these vaccines might ultimately prove their worth and drastically improve and lengthen people’s lives. This is the power of successful vaccines, which through centuries have shown that they could produce results never before thought possible, against health scourges that seemed as though they would always be with us. It’s also a tribute to the scientific method, in which researchers devote themselves for years or even decades to develop and test out vaccines that will prevent human misery.
And that’s the final thing to appreciate about the recent vaccine news from the laboratory: The vaccines that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have proved their extraordinary value through round after round of study, and years of extremely rigorous testing, before they ever made it to a doctor’s office. Tremendous dedication -- and adequate funding -- are required. And once approved, they continue to be tested and re-evaluated for both safety and efficacy.
Not all experimental vaccines make it from animal tests to the job of saving human lives. But those that have are a tremendous gift to humanity.