Galway researchers build ‘modular’ approach to cancer vaccine design

7 Jun 2023

Image: Adele Gabba

By adding a component called a glycocluster to a vaccine prototype, a University of Galway PhD student was able to improve immune response.

A group of University of Galway scientists are among a larger, international team of researchers that has worked on a project that could pave the way for a new cancer vaccine prototype.

The research that led to the breakthrough was mostly carried out by Dr Adele Gabba while she was a PhD student at University of Galway. She was supervised by Prof Paul Murphy.

Gabba and her collaborators added something called a glycocluster into their vaccine mix. This glycocluster acts as a targeting component to selectively deliver and increase uptake of the vaccine into the relevant cells of the immune system.

This makes it more likely for the immune system to respond positively to the vaccine. But the glycocluster does not work alone. It is incorporated as part of a ‘modular’ approach which means the vaccine is made using different components – each doing their own job.

With the glycocluster targeting component forming the first block, the scientists next added a T-helper epitope to generate long-term immunity.

The third component is a cancer T-antigen containing molecule (MUC-1), which stimulates the immune system to generate immunity against cancer associated antigens found on breast tumour cell surfaces.

Altogether, these three components work together to be potentially more effective at targeting cancer and other diseases. The modular approach has implications for the future of vaccine design.

Murphy was particularly eager to highlight the significance of the addition of glycoclusters. He said that after many years of study they are beginning to show applications that benefit health and industry.

“It may even be possible to use the modular approach incorporating glycoclusters to design vaccines for infectious diseases caused by bacteria or viruses or for the targeted delivery of biopharmaceuticals or small molecule drugs to where they are needed.”

Murphy added that “no adverse effects were observed of the prototype” of the vaccine during the study.

He also paid tribute to Gabba, the lead author of the resulting research paper which was published in the scientific journal of the American Chemical Society.

“I am hugely in debt to all the collaborators for all their contributions, and especially grateful to Dr Adele Gabba, for the persistence she showed throughout, which was the key to the success of this research, spanning her PhD study and a subsequent period as a postdoctoral researcher in Mainz.”

Following Gabba’s stint in Galway, she became a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Prof Pol Besenius at the Johannes Gutenburg University of Mainz in Germany. She also spent time working in the lab of Prof Ulrika Westerlind at Umea University in Sweden where vaccine constructs used in the study were prepared.

Labs in Amsterdam, Boston and Spain were involved in the collaboration, too. Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme were among the groups that funded the project.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.