You would never think so but a particularly resistant strain of bacteria may be the key to improved vaccines. The extremophile bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans has evolved to thrive in many extreme environments. Now, it may be the key to making better and cheaper vaccines, according to Gizmodo.
The bacteria is quite unique in its traits: it is almost immune to radiation. It can withstand up to 5,000 grays (Gy) of radiation, toxic and corrosive chemicals, and also desert heats and subzero temperatures. The bacteria has been found occupying coolant water tanks of nuclear reactors.
The few researchers who study these sturdy bacteria have long wondered how it manages to achieve all this. Chief among these experts is Mike Daly, a molecular biologist at Uniformed Services University, a medical college run by the Pentagon in Bethesda, Maryland.
“One of the reasons perhaps that so few people are working on it is because many of the mysteries have been solved,” Daly told Gizmodo.
“The great questions that we had 20 years ago about what makes this thing so radiation-resistant—they have been solved completely in the sense that we have now built on those insights.”
Daly has now been looking for methods to apply the lessons learned to the development of faster, cheaper, and safer vaccines. The basis of Daly’s new vaccine approach is the key mechanism by which D. radiodurans protects itself from cosmic rays and other forms of ionizing radiation.
D. radiodurans withstands radiation damage by insulating and protecting its DNA and RNA repair proteins. To do this, each bacterium manufactures a special antioxidant compound containing positively charged manganese.
“We’ve shown that these manganese complexes are phenomenally good at protecting proteins from oxidants generated during radiation,” Daly said. “But, these same manganese antioxidants, they did not protect DNA or RNA. So, as soon as that became very obvious, I said to myself, ‘It sounds like an ideal way of making a vaccine.’”
“If you can grow-up your pathogen (whatever it is) and mix it in with these manganese antioxidants,” Daly said, “you should be able to obliterate the genome, whether it’s RNA or DNA, and render it completely non-infective and sterile, while at the same time preserving all the structures and peptides, all the ligands and all the things that make up the surface of the virus or bacteria. Then you’ve sort of got like a ghost of what the real thing is.”
And that's an impressive feat. Daly and his team essentially found a way to forego most of the many long and tedious steps to making a vaccine, paving the way for a very quick production with little damage to the critical antigenic proteins on the pathogen's surface. Further research will determine whether the vaccine fails or works but it sure looks promising.