The immunological pain of childbirth
Birth is a traumatic event, immunologically speaking. Babies go from the controlled environment of the womb where everything is filtered out by the mother to the bacteria, virus and fungus filled world. All of which is new to the baby, some of which can kill the baby, but most of which is harmless. We are slowly improving our understanding of how babies respond to this new environment and this is particularly important in the development of vaccines. In a recent paper by Beatris Mastelic Gavillet et al (sciency way of saying and others) published in the that I was fortunate enough to contribute to, the vaccine response in early life was explored.
Adjuvants improve vaccines
The paper demonstrates that normally vaccine responses in early life are poor, but the addition of MF-59 significantly boosts the vaccine response. What is MF-59? It is one of a class of drugs called adjuvants, which are added to vaccines to improve the immune response to them. They work by a variety of mechanisms, but very broadly speaking they act as a red flag to the body to say that the vaccine is foreign and that it would be good to mount an immune response to it. The paper drilled down further into the type of response and the lead authors found that a specific white blood cell called a T follicular helper or Tfh was central to this. Our understanding about these Tfh is relatively recent, but they appear to be critical in helping another white cell called the B cell make antibodies. My lab’s contribution to the paper was to show that when the vaccine plus adjuvant was used in early life it protected against influenza infection. This work suggests approaches to improve vaccines in early life, either by the inclusion of safe and effective adjuvants like MF59 or by developing novel strategies to target this vital cell (the Tfh). The next step will be to assess these vaccines as part of the infant vaccination schedule.
Collaborative science in the EU
My involvement in this study came about thanks to a unique EU funded project called Aditec in which 42 research partners from both industry and academia from 13 countries have come together to create a network of excellence in vaccine design and development. As a relatively junior academic, it has been a remarkable opportunity for me to work in close proximity with world leaders whilst moving my own research forward. This kind of opportunity would not necessarily be open if the UK were to leave the EU and it may be a small part of the argument about the future of the UK in the EU, but an important one, if we were to leave, it is unlikely that this level of funding would be available and as such UK science would suffer. Something else to think about on May 7th!