* New vaccine avoids need for live infectious virus
* Researchers in talks with potential commercial partner
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, March 27 (Reuters) - British scientists have developed a new vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease that is safer and easier to manufacture, an advance they believe should greatly increase production capacity and reduce costs.
The technology behind the livestock product might also be applied to make improved human vaccines to protect against similar viruses, including polio.
The new vaccine does not require live virus in its production - an important consideration as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is extremely infectious and vaccine facilities handling virus samples are difficult to secure.
"It spreads like wild fire," said David Stuart, a professor of biology at the University of Oxford, who led the research.
A 2007 outbreak of FMD in southeast England, for example, was traced to a nearby vaccine site. The same facility, ironically, is home to some of the researchers behind the new vaccine.
In contrast to standard FMD livestock vaccines, the new product is made from synthetic empty protein shells containing no infectious viral genome, scientists reported in the journal PLOS Pathogens on Wednesday.
This means the vaccine can be produced without expensive biosecurity and does not need to be kept refrigerated.
"One of the big advantages is that since it is not derived from live virus, the production facility requires no special containment," Stuart said.
"One could imagine local plants being set up in large parts of the world where foot and mouth is endemic and where it still remains a huge problem."
Worldwide, between 3 billion and 4 billion doses of FMD vaccine are administered every year but there are shortages in many parts of Asia and Africa were the disease is a serious problem.
Current standard vaccines are based on 50-year-old technology, although U.S. biotech company GenVec last year won U.S. approval for a new one.
The purely synthetic British vaccine has so far been tested in small-scale cattle trials and found to be effective.
Stuart said the research team from the universities of Oxford and Reading and two state-funded bodies - Diamond Light Source and the Pirbright Institute - would now conduct larger tests while discussing the vaccine's commercial development.
"We are talking to a potential commercial partner," Stuart told Reuters, adding that it would probably take around six years to bring the new vaccine to market. He said it was too early to give an indication of how much the vaccine would cost.
He declined to name the company involved but said it was not Merial, the animal health division of Sanofi that shares Pirbright's site in southeast England.
Stuart and his colleagues were able to produce empty protein shells to imitate the protein coat that surrounds the FMD virus using Diamond's X-ray system to visualise images a billion times smaller than a pinhead.
The same approach could in future be used to make empty shell vaccines against related viruses such as polio and hand-foot-and-mouth, a human disease that mainly affects infants and children, the researchers said.