The current outbreak of the zika virus and last year’s ebola crisis have highlighted the importance of vaccines.
The immune system protects the body from pathogens — the bad guys — usually in the form of bacteria and viruses that can cause infections.
Vaccines are like pathogen imposters; they mimic the bad guys in order to provoke a response from the immune system.
One of the key components in a vaccine is an adjuvant that enhances the body’s immune response to a vaccine.
Adjuvants have been around for almost a century but it is only recently that scientists are beginning to fully understand how they work.
Scientists are now looking for new and improved adjuvant to develop effective vaccines for TB, malaria, HIV, and some cancers.
Immunologists at Trinity College Dublin have uncovered the mechanism by which a promising vaccine adjuvant, chitosan, induces an immune response.
The team’s discovery, which has been published in the journal Immunity, could lead to the better and more effective vaccines.
Prof Ed Lavelle and Dr Elizabeth Carroll, of Trinity’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology, were surprised that a substance from shellfish activated a DNA-sensing pathway.
Prof Lavelle, lead project researcher, said what they found was that the shrimp-derived molecule chitosan, was very good at driving a cellular immune response.
“Surprisingly this polymer that we get from shellfish actually activates this DNA sensing pathway, which is a very novel discovery that we think has potential in helping us to design better and more effective vaccines that induce this type of immune response.
“We can build on this very exciting discovery to try and make better vaccines for conditions like malaria, TB, and cancer,” he said.
Prof Lavelle said they had been working on the project for about eight years. It has been funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council.
Asked how close the project team was to using the vaccine adjuvant, Prof Lavelle said it was some way off but they now had a pathway to target.
The project team is collaborating with a company in Sweden and is currently working on different forms of chitosan to see which is best at driving the immune response.