The Conception and Production of Conjugate Vaccines Using Recombinant DNA Technology

Recombinant technology can be used to produce conjugate vaccines in a bacterial expression system.
Jan 01, 2012
Volume 25, Issue 1

In recent years, the vaccine market has experienced significant growth following the introduction of several novel bacterial vaccines—more specifically conjugate vaccines—addressing unmet medical needs. These conjugate vaccines are safe and effective against bacterial diseases and have been used in humans for many years. Although several serious bacterial infections, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae and some Meningococcal strains, are prevented using conjugate vaccines, the underlying process of development and manufacture has limited their scope. The method used for developing and manufacturing conjugate bacterial vaccines is based on chemical conjugation technology. It is a complex chemistry-based process that, depending on the pathogen or serotype, is time-consuming and expensive. A new approach has been developed to conceive and produce conjugate vaccines by employing recombinant DNA technology. This technology enables the development and manufacture of conjugate vaccines, called bioconjugates, and addresses the limitations of the current chemical conjugation process.


The vaccine market experienced significant growth over the past decade, with global revenues forecast to exceed USD $24 billion in 2010 (1). Within the growing market, conjugate vaccines for the prevention of bacterial infections today account for over 25% of the total market. In 2009, two of the four leading vaccines by sales were the bacterial conjugate vaccines Prevnar (Pfizer) for pneumococcal disease and Menactra (Sanofi Pasteur) for meningitis serogroups A, C, W-135, and Y. Together, these two products alone accounted for 12% of global vaccine sales.

Despite the success of glycoconjugate vaccines, several important bacterial infections lack a vaccine. These pathogens are responsible for significant morbidity, mortality, and cost to healthcare systems. Key pathogens that lack vaccines include Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, both causing nosocomial infections; Neisseria meningitides type B; and many diarrheal pathogens such as Shigella sp., enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC), and Salmonella sp.


The conjugate is a large glycoprotein molecule consisting of a protein linked or conjugated to a polysaccharide. The sugars are surface-exposed bacterial antigens to which the body will develop an immune response. The protein carrier is responsible for eliciting a long-lasting immune response against the polysaccharide, leading to better protection against the target disease, especially in young children (2). In chemical conjugation, the bacteria producing the polysaccharide and the protein carrier are grown separately, then purified through multiple steps. The polysaccharide is then chemically bound to the protein carrier (see Figure 1). This method faces the following challenges and limitations:

  • Because the polysaccharide is produced by toxic bacteria, specialized and costly containment facilities are required. Moreover, several purification steps are necessary to obtain an acceptable purity of the product, thus resulting in loss of material throughout the process and decreased yields.
  • Chemical coupling between the polysaccharide and the protein carrier results in a heterogeneous product which may still contain some free polysaccharide that may interfere with the immune response to the conjugates. Any small change in the mixture affects the characteristics of the vaccine, so the same mixture must be maintained throughout scale up and production—a manufacturing and regulatory challenge.
  • Chemical conjugation can change the structure of both the polysaccharide and the carrier protein, thus making them less immunogenic, or in some cases, not immunogenic. Toxic polysaccharides must be chemically detoxified, often leading to further loss of immunogenicity or increased safety concerns.

Figure 1: Chemical method currently used for production of conjugate vaccines. (ALL FIGURES ARE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR)
The net result is that chemical conjugate vaccines are restricted to certain targets, may induce suboptimal efficacy, are difficult to develop, and are costly to produce. In addition, the growing resistance to antibiotics, the ever-increasing standard of safety, and high development costs required to bring a product to market emphasize the need for new technologies to address these challenges and fulfill the worldwide need for new vaccines.

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