Irish immunologists find answer to vaccines mystery

2 Mar 2016

A team of immunologists from the AMBER research centre in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) believes it has solved the mystery behind adjuvants in vaccines.

Vaccines have once again entered the news flow given the worrying spread of the Zika virus globally, which, it has now been confirmed, can be sexually transmitted between an infected person and their partner.

Much like the far deadlier Ebola virus that killed thousands in west Africa in 2015, the Zika virus has also been worked on by immunologists with the hope of developing a vaccine that would prevent the spread of the disease and save millions of lives.

Future Human

While most people have a fair idea as to what vaccines do, there still remains an element of mystery behind some aspects of their effectiveness.

Acting as pathogen imposters to trick our immune system into a response, one of the key components of a vaccine is something called an adjuvant, which serves to enhance our body’s immune response to vaccination.

‘Exciting new perspectives’

Yet, despite adjuvants having been around for almost a century, it is only recently that scientists are beginning to fully understand how they work.

New and improved adjuvants are needed to develop effective vaccines for conditions like TB, malaria, HIV and some cancers.

That’s where a team from Ireland’s AMBER research centre, led by Ed Lavelle and Dr Elizabeth Carroll, comes in, with the team having published a paper in the journal Immunity that details a mechanism by which a promising vaccine adjuvant, chitosan, induces an immune response.

This discovery provides a roadmap to develop vaccines that trigger ‘cell-mediated immunity’.

Commenting on the breakthrough, Prof Lavelle, said: “Our discovery that a cationic polysaccharide can activate a DNA-sensing pathway in cells is surprising – as this pathway mainly senses pathogens – and provides exciting new perspectives for the design of adjuvants for promoting cell-mediated immunity.”

Vaccination jab image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic