Structural Biology: The Science Behind Creating Vaccines

Published on: May 2, 2024

Vaccine technology has been a hot topic over the past several years, particularly during the COVID-19 global pandemic, when it was clear that an effective vaccine would be needed to curb the spread of the virus. At the heart of modern vaccine technology is structural biology, a branch of science that lays the groundwork for new vaccine development. Those passionate about universal vaccine research and public health immunization may find that this is the ideal specialization to pursue within the larger field of biology.

Understanding Structural Biology

Structural biology is a specialization within the field of biology that focuses on molecular structure. Advancements within the field of structural biology and improvements in structural biology techniques have transformed the vaccine formulation process.

What Is Structural Biology?

Nature Portfolio defines structural biology as the study of both molecular structures as well as the dynamics of biological macromolecules, including nucleic acids and proteins. Structural biologists rely on advanced structural biology techniques to change the structure of those molecular structures and evaluate how those alterations impact their overall function.

Those who study structural biology need to have an advanced understanding of:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biophysics
  • Molecular biology

The Techniques of Structural Biology

Structural biologists rely on several key techniques to expedite vaccine research and improve the vaccine formulation process. According to Technology Networks, the primary structural biology techniques include:

  • X-Ray crystallography – Known for being the best structural biology technique for achieving high-resolution results, this technique is ideal for those looking to analyze a wide range of molecules. It is also one of the more affordable structural biology techniques.
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy – This technique is primarily used for studying macromolecular dynamics, characterizing the interaction that occurs between molecules and analyzing the structural elucidation of macromolecules.
  • Cryogenic electron microscopy – Often referred to as Cryo-EM, this technique requires a biologist to cryogenically freeze a molecule prior to analysis, and it is often used to study proteins.

These primary techniques can often be complemented by additional, more specialized structural biology techniques. This includes small angle X-ray scattering, neutron diffraction, cross-linking mass spectrometry and circular dichroism.

The Role of Structural Biology in Vaccinology

Defined as both a science and engineering field, vaccinology is the study of vaccine development to prevent serious infectious diseases. Vaccinology has been a growing field for the past several centuries, with work picking up at a rapid pace during the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the vaccine formulation process once heavily relied on working with past or dead viral samples, structural biology now serves as the foundation for advancements in vaccinology.

Identifying Targets for Vaccine Development

Structural biology techniques are often used to identify targets for vaccine development. Vaccine research relies heavily on discovering the right targets, as this is the best way to focus the research and quickly develop a safe and effective vaccine.

Science Direct states identifying the right vaccine target is a critical step in the development process, and it can be incredibly difficult to complete. The trick is to identify the unique component of a microorganism that can produce an immune response that will offer some degree of protection from a serious illness.

Understanding Virus Mechanisms

As structural biologists work to identify the right techniques required for vaccine development, they also must have an in-depth understanding of pathogenesis, which is the process that occurs when a virus infects the body and results in disease. Per an article published in Medical Microbiology, common virus mechanisms include:

  • Implantation of the virus.
  • Replication of the virus.
  • Viral spread to specific disease sites in the body, such as organs.
  • Shedding the virus to other host sites.

By understanding the viral mechanisms that take place with a specific virus, structural biologists can identify the best techniques to use to alter the structure of a molecule and produce an immune response.

Case Studies: Vaccines and Structural Biology

In recent years, the world watched vaccine development play out in real time, as people around the globe anxiously awaited the arrival of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. However, the COVID-19 vaccine is not the only recent vaccine development that relied heavily on structural biology techniques. Many of the most advanced and effective vaccines of our era would not have been possible without this important vaccine development science. While vaccine regulatory approval varies from country to country, most medical experts agree that structural biology has been the key to unlocking advancements in vaccinology.

COVID-19 Vaccine Development

For plenty of people, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine felt incredibly fast — and that’s because it was. The COVID-19 vaccine was rapidly developed within the first year of the global pandemic, exceeding the expectations of anxious people who were ready to resume their normal lives. Yet, it still made some weary about how quickly it was produced.

The key to this rapid development was structural biology. The foundation for the rapid development of new MRNA vaccines had been built over the past several decades, giving scientists an ideal opportunity to create a vaccine in real-time and provide the world with a solution as quickly as possible.

The original COVID-19 vaccine was developed based on the variant that was circulating at the onset of the pandemic. Today, scientists and biologists continue to work to refine the vaccine based on the most recent variants circulating. It is also widely assumed that medical experts will continue to recommend an updated COVID-19 vaccine each year to offer adults and children the best protection from this highly contagious virus.

Other Success Stories

When it comes to vaccine development, almost everyone immediately thinks of the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, structural biology has played a crucial role in the successful development of other, equally significant vaccines. A malaria vaccine is currently being distributed in parts of Africa, and it is significantly reducing the impact of the deadly virus that often infects children.

Challenges in Vaccine Development

As is true in any type of science, the road to vaccine development is not always easy. In fact, structural biologists and vaccinologists often encounter hurdles and challenges along the way. Many of these can be devastating when they think they are within reach of having an effective and safe vaccine that will provide people around the world with a higher quality of life. Some of the most common vaccinology challenges include:

  • Rising cost for development
  • Vaccine hesitancy
  • Additional vaccine regulatory approval requirements
  • Increasing requirements for single-dose efficacy
  • Effective antigen identification

Complexities of Viral Structures

Vaccinologists and structural biologists must be able to rely on structural biology techniques to analyze the increasingly complex structures of the viruses they are working with. For example, they must be able to evaluate the viral envelope structure to better understand the virus and how it infects its host. However, not all viruses have these protective envelopes, which can complicate the path toward vaccine development.

Evolving Pathogens

The frustration of evolving pathogens took center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the COVID-19 virus evolved and mutated into a new variant before the original vaccine had even been released. While the vaccine still proved effective in lessening the severity of the disease, it was no longer as efficacious as it was against the original variant. This trend continues to be true today as viruses mutate more quickly and effectively, and vaccines struggle to protect against the most recent variant.

Future Directions in Vaccine Development

Medical experts, scientists and citizens from around the world learned a great deal from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Today, vaccinologists and structural biologists are taking the lessons learned from those harrowing moments and creating a brighter future for vaccine development. As universal vaccine research continues, scientists are working to develop more ways to create safe and effective vaccines as quickly as possible.

Advancements in Structural Biology Techniques

The science of structural biology is constantly changing, thanks in large part to advancements in technology and further research that has revealed unique ways to improve structural biology techniques. These advancements will allow scientists to continue to create vaccines not only for the viruses circulating around the world today, but for the pathogens that may infect us in the future.

The Potential for Universal Vaccines

Structural biologists may hold the key to universal vaccines, which are largely considered to be the gold standard of future vaccine development. The need for universal vaccines has never been greater, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is that advanced structural biology technologies will be able to create universal vaccines that can offer broad and lasting protection from a wide range of viruses.

Explore Your Passion for Vaccine Development Science with a Biology Degree From Park University

At Park University, we offer a Bachelor of Science in Biology that provides you with a foundational understanding of all aspects of this science, including structural biology, microbiology, genetics, zoology, physiology and cell biology. By emphasizing the importance of research and providing you with a skills-based education, this degree program allows you to launch a dynamic career in science.

Request more information about our online degree programs today.

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