Most vaccines need a 'magic' booster or adjuvant to boost our immune response to the vaccine. But the best adjuvants are too toxic for human use. Things could change for the better now.
The new synthetic adjuvant fabricated at the Industrial Research Limited (IRL) in Wellington could work across a wide range of vaccines against viruses, bacteria and cancer.
The commercial potential is large, as only one adjuvant is currently licensed for use in human vaccines in the USA according to Richard Furneaux, Group Leader of Carbohydrate Chemistry at IRL.
For years immunologists have used Freund's adjuvant to boost immune responses in animal studies of vaccines. It's usually an extract from the mycobacteria that cause TB.
But the associated toxic side-effects have prevented these adjuvants being used in humans. IRL's adjuvant is a glycolipid, a carbohydrate-based molecule derived from the cell wall of mycobacteria. It seems to have much of the same immune system-stimulating effect without the dangerous side-effects.
And because the new adjuvant has been made from scratch it can be precisely defined.
"Modern vaccines need to be composed of chemically defined components," explains Richard. "Our adjuvant appears to have similar properties to old-fashioned adjuvants, but it has been chemically synthesised."
Now IRL has entered in to an agreement with a leading New Zealand research centre, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, to test out their adjuvant with a cancer vaccine.
The vaccine uses the patient's own cells, in this case immune system cells called dendritic cells, which have been trained to recognise tumour antigens. These trained cells turn the immune system against the tumour.
The cancer vaccine collaboration has two additional partners, Victoria University's commercialisation arm Victoria Link and the local development agency Grow Wellington.
The collaborators are testing the combination of Malaghan's vaccine with IRL's adjuvant in tumour models of melanoma to determine whether the vaccine works better in the presence of the adjuvant. The studies will form part of the pre-clinical evidence required to take the vaccine-adjuvant combination into clinical trials.