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UW Spin-out Receives NIH Grant to Study Use of Insect Cells to Produce Flu Vaccine

May 29, 2014 — A University of Wyoming spin-out business has received a $220,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to develop a fast and cost-effective process for influenza vaccine production.

GlycoBac will use the six-month National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to improve influenza vaccines made in insect cells from a moth known as the fall army worm. The project, titled “Glycoengineered Baculoviruses for the Production of More Efficacious Influenza Vaccines,” begins June 1. The research will be conducted on campus.

Currently, almost all flu vaccines are made in chicken eggs. For that process, fertilized chicken eggs are injected with flu. After the virus has replicated, virus particles are purified, killed and formulated into the vaccine.

“That process has not changed for a half century,” says Christoph Geisler, GlycoBac’s chief research scientist. “The egg-based flu vaccine production method has a few drawbacks. Most significant, it takes a whole lot of eggs, and a long time to make enough flu vaccine. The whole process takes six to nine months.”

Each year, flu vaccines are developed based on predictions of which strains will be most prevalent. Like the weather forecast, figuring out which flu strains are going to be most common each year is only a prediction. If the prediction is wrong, the vaccine is basically useless, Geisler says.

“If a new pandemic flu strain unexpectedly emerges, you cannot wait for half a year to have a vaccine available. You have to manufacture vaccines fast,” he says. “You simply can’t do that with the traditional process.”

“What you want to prevent is millions of people getting sick and dying,” Geisler adds. “Vaccinations would be needed very quickly for a lot of people. You want to catch the outbreak in its tracks before it’s too late.”

Unlike using eggs to make a vaccine, Geisler says, producing flu vaccines in insect cells can be accomplished within weeks, a crucial time-saving measure if a pandemic outbreak ever occurred.

There is one drawback of using insect cells to make flu vaccines: The insect cell product is less effective, and about three times the dose is needed.

“Recent studies show this may be caused by differences between the sugar structures found on the egg-made vaccine versus the insect cell product,” Geisler says. “Our goal is to make an influenza virus vaccine with egg-type sugar structures in insect cells. The result would be a more effective vaccine -- the same amount of vaccine could protect more people. It would be cheaper per dose, too.”

Geisler describes a production process in which a giant stainless steel tank, or bioreactor, is used to create large amounts of the vaccine using flu virus proteins from insect cells. Comparing the process to how a beer brewery works, he says, instead of using yeast to make beer, the tank would have insect cells floating in a nutrient solution.

During the six-month grant period, Geisler says the goal is to demonstrate that GlycoBac can use insect cells to manufacture a flu vaccine with egg-type sugar structures. Following this proof of principle, he says, a determination will be made whether the vaccine will be injectable or in a spray mist form.

Geisler will work with Don Jarvis, a UW professor of molecular biology, and Ajay Maghodia, a scientist with international experience in insect cell research. Geisler and Jarvis started GlycoBac in summer 2011 after winning UW’s John P. Ellbogen $30K Entrepreneurship Competition.

Since December 2011, GlycoBac has received four NIH grant awards totaling $1.42 million, says Jarvis, the company’s president. The federal SBIR is a primary source of seed capital for Wyoming’s technology-based start-up businesses. It supports the development of new, cutting-edge technologies.

GlycoBac, a UW spin-out business, will use cells from this moth, known as a fall army worm, to develop a flu vaccine faster and less expensive than current influenza vaccines.

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