Boston, Mass. – Infectious disease is a huge cause of death globally, and is a particular threat to newborns whose immune systems respond poorly to most vaccines. A new approach developed at Children’s Hospital Boston, using an adjuvant (an agent to stimulate the immune system) along with the vaccine, shows promise in a study of blood from Gambian infants. Results will appear in the open-access journal PLoS ONE on April 13.
The ability to immunize newborns would close their window of vulnerability to serious infections during the first months of life, such as respiratory syncytial virus, pneumococcus and rotavirus. It would provide a way to protect newborns both in resource-poor countries, where a baby may have limited opportunities to be vaccinated, and in wealthier nations like the U.S. where typical immunization schedules (at 2, 4 and 6 months of age) leave infants under 6 months vulnerable.
The research, led by Sarah Burl, PhD and Katie Flanagan, PhD, of the Medical Research Council (MRC; U.K.) laboratories in The Gambia, and Ofer Levy, MD, PhD, of Children’s Division of Infectious Diseases, builds on a decade of work in Levy’s lab studying stimulators of Toll-like receptors (TLRs), a family of receptors on immune cells, as potential vaccine adjuvants. In 2006, the lab showed that stimulating one TLR — TLR8 — triggered a robust immune response in a key group of white blood cells called antigen-presenting cells.
In the new multinational study, funded by the MRC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, investigators stimulated blood samples from 120 Gambian infants with a panel of different TLR stimulators (agonists), and measured production of cytokines from white blood cells – all elements of the immune response that are difficult to elicit in newborns. The infants ranged from newborn to 12 months of age, allowing the researchers to examine age-specific effects and see if the adjuvants remained effective over time.
Many of the TLR agonists, including TLR4 and TLR5 agonists, elicited some form of immune response, but a thiazoloquinoline compound, stimulating TLR7 and 8, elicited the greatest production of the cytokine TNF-alpha, a key component of the immune response, during the first month of life, and was the only compound to elicit production of the cytokine interferon gamma in newborns. TLR8 agonists continued to induce the greatest production of TNF? and IFN? throughout the first year of life.
“Currently, until an infant gets the full vaccination series, he or she is not fully protected,” Levy explains. “The adjuvant could be combined with any vaccine, and if things work very well, it could provide single-shot protection at birth.”
“Our findings in The Gambia highlight the importance of international collaboration and further underscore the potential of TLR8 adjuvants as a broadly applicable platform to enhance vaccine responses,” Levy says. “This could possibly reduce the number of immunizations needed and the antigen dose required — both of which would be major wins for global health.”
Children’s Hospital Boston is home to the world’s largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. More than 1,100 scientists, including nine members of the National Academy of Sciences, 12 members of the Institute of Medicine and 13 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children’s research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children’s Hospital Boston today is a 392-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. Children’s also is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. For more information about research and clinical innovation at Boston Childrenâ€™s visit: Vector Blog.
Established in The Gambia in 1947, the MRC is the UK ‘s single largest investment in medical research in a developing country. The Unit has 4 field sites including one based in Guinea Bissau and an established staff complement of about 200 scientists, clinicians and senior administrative staff from many parts of the world The Unit’s research focuses on infectious diseases of immediate concern to The Gambia and the continent of Africa, with the aim of reducing the burden of illness and death in the country and the developing world as a whole. For more information, visit the Medical Research Council.
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