Towards more user-friendly vaccines

15 Nov 2013

Dr Anne Moore, lecturer in pharmacology at the School of Pharmacy in University College Cork

Dr Anne Moore at University College Cork (UCC) has been working on a universal flu vaccine and ‘microneedles’ for easier vaccine delivery. Claire O’Connell found out more.

It’s flu season, and people who are at risk of complications from the virus are being encouraged to get the seasonal flu vaccine. Keeping your flu immunisation status up to date means going for that jab every year, because each year different strains of flu circulate and the vaccine has to be tailored accordingly.

In effect, your immune system learns to recognise flu viruses either by meeting the live ones that turn up in your nose and lungs, or meeting the killed or weakened ones that are given through vaccines, explains Moore, who is a lecturer in pharmacology at the School of Pharmacy in UCC.

“Your immune system will recognise influenza viruses that it has encountered before and prevent these viruses from infecting,” she says. “But the genetic code of the flu virus frequently mutates, and this results in the generation of altered protein sequences on the outside of the virus which mean your immune system likely won’t recognise the ‘new’ strains of flu virus that emerge every year.”

Universal flu vaccine

And so people line up every year for a fresh flu vaccine to help them ward off the current strains. But wouldn’t it be ideal if there was a single vaccine that could offer some protection against all strains of flu over the coming years? A jab that covers all?

Moore has been working on approaches towards a more catch-all vaccine. “The key aim of a universal flu vaccine is to enable the immune system to recognise as broad a range of viruses as possible – and that includes the viruses that exist now and also the ones that will exist in the future,” she says.

Working with Prof Sarah Gilbert at the Jenner Institute in the University of Oxford, Moore has been looking to boost the immune system’s ability to recognise the proteins inside the virus, which are more stable over time than the outer proteins and these inner proteins tend to stay the same from year to year.

“Our approach has been based on boosting pre-existing flu-specific T lymphocyte responses that recognise less changeable proteins inside the flu virus,” explains Moore, who describes how some of the research has now progressed to clinical studies in the UK. “A lot of work has been completed now on patient samples to understand how broad a response is after infection or after vaccination and clinical studies are looking at how newly licensed vaccines might broaden the immune response.”

This won’t hurt

Then there is the issue of delivery. There can be few of us who relish the thought of getting the ‘jab’, or the injection of a vaccine delivered by a hypodermic needle that pierces the skin. Moore is hoping that she can not only diminish the pain but also make it easier to transport, store and deliver vaccines.

How? With arrays of tiny ‘microneedles’ that can be mounted onto a patch. “These microneedles are made from a vaccine-containing formulation and are simply pressed against the skin,” she explains. “The dissolvable microneedles insert into the immune-rich later in the skin, dissolve and release the vaccine to the body. The only waste is the adhesive used to stick the patch onto the skin.”

And – here’s the sweetener for those of us who squirm at the thought of needles – the shape of the spikes means they don’t trigger the nerve endings in the skin, so it’s pain free.
The technology, which is called ImmuPatch, could not only reduce the ‘ouch’ factor of getting a vaccine, but it would also mean that vaccines could be more easily and cheaply shipped, stored and delivered – and this could make vaccination easier in more logistically challenging areas of the world where keeping medicines cold is expensive and impractical, explains Moore.

“We also believe, based on preliminary data, that a flu vaccine delivered into the skin using a dissolvable microneedle patch can enhance the immune response,” she adds. “And while a lot of research needs to be carried out before we can be confident that this will work in all individuals, microneedle delivery may also help to increase the universality of a flu vaccine.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication