The Double-Edged Sword: How Evolution Can Make or Break a Live-Attenuated Virus VaccineReport as inadecuate

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Evolution: Education and Outreach

, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 635–643

First Online: 26 November 2011


Even students who reject evolution are often willing to consider cases in which evolutionary biology contributes to, or undermines, biomedical interventions. Moreover, the intersection of evolutionary biology and biomedicine is fascinating in its own right. This review offers an overview of the ways in which evolution has impacted the design and deployment of live-attenuated virus vaccines, with subsections that may be useful as lecture material or as the basis for case studies in classes at a variety of levels. Live-attenuated virus vaccines have been modified in ways that restrain their replication in a host so that infection vaccination produces immunity but not disease. Applied evolution, in the form of serial passage in novel host cells, is a -classical- method to generate live-attenuated viruses. However, many live-attenuated vaccines exhibit reversion to virulence through back-mutation of attenuating mutations, compensatory mutations elsewhere in the genome, recombination or reassortment, or changes in quasispecies diversity. Additionally, the combination of multiple live-attenuated strains may result in competition or facilitation between individual vaccine viruses, resulting in undesirable increases in virulence or decreases in immunogenicity. Genetic engineering informed by evolutionary thinking has led to a number of novel approaches to generate live-attenuated virus vaccines that contain substantial safeguards against reversion to virulence and that ameliorate interference among multiple vaccine strains. Finally, vaccines have the potential to shape the evolution of their wild-type counterparts in counter-productive ways; at the extreme, vaccine-driven eradication of a virus may create an empty niche that promotes the emergence of new viral pathogens.

KeywordsLive-attenuated Vaccine Virus Biomedicine Evolution Adaptation Reversion to virulence  Download fulltext PDF

Author: Kathryn A. Hanley


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