Public Release: 

In emergency, flu vaccine could be made quickly in existing facilities

University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---In an emergency such as a pandemic outbreak or last year's vaccine shortage, the influenza vaccine could be produced twice as fast using cell cultures in existing biopharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, according to Henry Wang, a University of Michigan professor of biomedical and chemical engineering, Wang and graduate student Lyle Lash, speaking at the 229th American Chemical Society National Meeting March 13-17, will propose a system for retrofitting existing biopharmaceutical buildings to produce the flu vaccine using cell cultures. The plan would require proper government and industry support and some advanced planning and training.

Wang and Lash first did a case study of traditional vaccine manufacturing, where the virus is injected and incubated in a chicken egg, killed and extracted, then bottled and sold. The process takes more than four months.

Next, the researchers considered the cell-based vaccines. In the cell culture approach, the flu virus incubates in cell cultures rather than in eggs. Several companies are trying to perfect the cell-based flu vaccines where cells are grown in large vats. It is seen as a promising approach because it's more flexible and quicker than the current egg culture method.

By building a separate cell culture facility and shipping the cell to the existing biomanufacturing plants (assuming they have agreed in advance to participate), the production cycle could be cut in half to two months, Wang said.

Lash and Wang identified approximately a dozen potential facilities around the world that are large scale FDA and GMP (good manufacturing practices) approved facilities that could potentially be modified to manufacture flu vaccines in an emergency.

Many biopharmaceutical facilities use mammalian cell culture already to produce their drug products so they could easily be switched to producing flu vaccine using the same bioreactors, the researchers argue. Long term, it might be necessary to standardize the production systems at facilities in the network to ensure consistency in the vaccine manufacturing process.

An influenza emergency is nearly inevitable, experts say. All the factors exist for a major flu pandemic: new, extremely aggressive viruses with new ways of spreading, and insufficient vaccine supplies. A Jan. 24 flu symposium hosted by the U-M School of Public Health's Michigan Center for Public Health Preparedness and the Michigan Department of Community Health discussed this threat in-depth. Visit:

To reduce the time required to expand the cells to production scale, a small GMP cell culture facility could maintain the cells and expand in the face of a crisis, ready to provide them as seeds to the facilities that will help manufacture the vaccine, Lash said.

"We feel that this facility would work well as part of a university or training center that could be operated by students gaining valuable experience in biopharmaceutical manufacturing, and keep us prepared to respond to an emergency," Lash said.

Funding to build this facility and set up this network could come from the government or companies that are willing to be a part of the network, Lash said.

"There are several scientific and regulatory issues to manufacturing the vaccine using this network concept so we will apply for funding to address the scientific issues to enable such a facility and network to be built in the future," Lash said.

Economically, the use of cell culture to produce the vaccine is comparable to that of egg culture. It is more expensive to build a new large cell culture facility to produce the vaccine than a new egg culture facility so the use of existing cell culture facilities would be advantageous.

The next step is to continue research to identify and address the technical issues, such as ensuring consistent good growth of cells shipped for different times to different facilities, and ensuring that the cells are not contaminated.


For information on Wang, see:
For ACS, see:
For College of Engineering, see:

The University of Michigan College of Engineering is ranked among the top engineering schools in the country. The CoE boasts one of the largest engineering research budgets of any public university, at $135 million for 2004. The CoE has 11 departments and two NSF Engineering Research Centers. Within those departments and centers, there is a special emphasis on research in three emerging areas: nanotechnology and integrated microsystems; cellular and molecular biotechnology; and information technology. The CoE is seeking to raise $110 million for capital building projects and program support in these areas to further research discovery. The CoE's goal is to advance academic scholarship and market cutting edge research to improve public health and well being.

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