Sometimes vaccines need a little help to protect people against infectious diseases.
That help comes in the form of adjuvants, vaccine additives that help people have stronger immune responses against a virus. Vaccines against the human papilloma virus, the flu, shingles and hepatitis B already work with the help of an adjuvant.
Adjuvants are particularly important in making vaccines work better for the young and elderly, who are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases. Adjuvants have been safely used in vaccines since the 1930s, but only five adjuvants are currently approved for clinical use in the U.S.
We need to develop better adjuvants to make vaccines more effective."
Jay Nelson, Ph.D., professor, founder and director of the OHSU Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute and a core scientist at OHSU Oregon National Primate Research Center
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded Nelson and his team $2.1 million for the first of up to five years in funding to identify promising adjuvants for two vaccines against the emerging tropical viruses Zika and Chikungunya. Nelson hopes those same adjuvants could also help vaccines better protect against influenza and other harmful pathogens.
Nelson's team is one of six that have been awarded a total of $11.5 million in first-year funding to develop potential adjuvants through the NIAID Vaccine Adjuvant Discovery Program.
"The goal is to develop a medicine cabinet of different types of adjuvants that we can pair with different vaccines for particular diseases," Nelson said.
OHSU researchers previously identified molecules that activate a protein known as STING, or stimulator of interferon genes, which triggers an immune response in cells infected by a virus or other microbes. Nelson and his team are now searching for new classes of molecules that activate the STING protein and could be developed into new adjuvants.
The current research involves using mouse models of Zika and Chikungunya vaccines to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the team's new STING-activating molecules. If their new adjuvants perform well enough in preclinical studies, the adjuvants could potentially be tested in human clinical trials.
STING is also involved with the immune system's response to cancer. Though not part of the team's current research project, the STING-activating adjuvants they discover could also potentially be used to develop new cancer drugs that activate the body's anti-tumor immune responses.