Developing vaccines is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor, but a new technique developed by researchers at the University of Copenhagen could revolutionize the practice. The simple method could have a big impact, with the potential to create vaccines for everything from asthma to cancer.

Whereas a traditional vaccine will contain a weakened version of the virus that's being combatted, the new method takes a different approach, mimicking the structure of virus. That structure serves as a scaffold onto which select parts of the disease – those known to be harmless on their own – are glued, creating virus-like particles that act as vaccines.

The idea is to create a virus-like structure that's similar enough to the real thing to prompt the body to develop an immune response to the disease being vaccinated against. Sending that danger signal to body, and getting it to produce antibodies in response, is something that's proved difficult to achieve with traditional vaccines.

By contrast, the new technique is so effective that it can actually trick the immune system into attacking the body's own cells, meaning that it could, in theory at least, be used to combat conditions not caused by foreign organisms, such as cancer.

The implications of the new technique could be huge, allowing for much faster development of vaccines, and providing the opportunity to tackle more diseases. Furthermore, its simplicity means that it can be used to produce and test vaccines without the same level of specialization traditionally required.

"It will be a game changer for low-income countries, which can now make vaccines targeted at widespread diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria," said researcher Professor Ali Salanti. "There is no doubt that the new results will have a significant impact on tomorrow's vaccines and public health."

Full details of the work are published online in the Journal of Nanobiotechnology.