Vaccine breakthrough could do away with need for ‘multiple booster’ shots

16 Jul 2018

Image: Roman Sorkin/Shutterstock

A major breakthrough in immunisation research made by a team of Irish scientists could make newborn vaccination a much quicker and effective process.

During the first year of a child’s life, they are often vulnerable to picking up a myriad of different infections, given that their immune systems are still so young.

In what proves to be a fine balance, though, our efforts to vaccinate them from the most harmful of diseases see doctors follow a regime of ‘multiple booster’ shots in order to space out the various formulae over a period of 12 to 13 months to coincide with the maturing of the fledgling immune system.

This is despite the fact that this time period is when they are most vulnerable to infection, which is the most common cause of death in early life.

Now, a new breakthrough achieved by researchers from Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) School of Medicine and the National Children’s Research Centre (NCRC) could allow us to administer vaccines much earlier while doing away with the multiple booster shot method.

Publishing its findings in the Journal of Immunology, the scientists discovered that within the immune systems of newborn children, there is a class of ‘danger signals’ that can quickly and efficiently identify when it is under attack.

These danger signals are referred to as adjuvants and they alert the immune system to trigger a response and determine what ‘weapon’ it needs to fight off a particular infection. However, current vaccines were developed in adults, despite them having a significantly different immune system to newborns.

A very strong response

Crucial to our ability to create newborn-specific vaccines is looking into the formation of the microbiome, where good bacteria in the gut and on the skin establish and start functioning.

It is thought that newborns do not mount strong immune responses to allow for such colonisation by these commensal or good bacteria but, as viruses contain no beneficial advantage to them, it was thought that babies may retain a more robust immune response to viruses.

By exploring this theory, the team found that a class of adjuvants activating specialised sensors, which are critical in the response, drove a very strong immune response in newborns.

“These sensors are normally activated in response to viral infection and direct the immune system to clear viral infections,” said Dr Sarah Doyle, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in immunology at TCD.

“Harnessing these efficient antiviral immune responses will help in the design of targeted adjuvants for paediatric vaccines by directly activating immune responses that are fully functional in infants and newborns.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic