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Promising molecule could boost vaccines

A molecule identified by a team of Kiwi scientists could offer a new way to help our bodies mount a more effective immune response to vaccines - with potentially fewer side-effects.

The work, led by Victoria University's Associate Professor Bridget Stocker, found the molecule – or "adjuvant" – binded strongly with a specific receptor found in normal, healthy cells.

When added to a vaccine, alongside an antigen, the molecule unlocked a powerful cellular immune response to combat harmful bacteria and viruses, tests in mice showed.

Early results showed it could play a role in developing vaccines for chronic infections such as HIV, Group A Streptococcus, tuberculosis and meningitis.

It could also improve existing vaccines, by generating a better, longer-lasting immune response and reducing the need for booster shots.

Stocker said the adjuvant differed from others currently in use, in that it stimulated a specific type of T-cell response, instead of an antibody-only mediated response, which made it useful in eliminating a number of particular pathogens.

That meant, in theory, it could be used for preventative vaccination, such as standard childhood vaccinations, as well as prophylactic vaccinations for fighting cancer.

She planned to investigate the potential use of the adjuvant in combination with different antigens, such as those that come from outside the body – like bacteria – or those that develop within the body when cells malfunctioned.

A further plus with this adjuvant is that it uses a defined molecule to target a specific receptor, leading to a consistent and defined immune response.

"There's been a shift in recent years in looking at whether more precise vaccines can be developed so there are fewer adverse side-effects, or less inflammation at the local site," Stocker said.

"So rather than packing everything into a vaccine, including those parts of a pathogen that don't facilitate the type of immune response that you want, you're just adding what you need – very specific ingredients that do the job."

The next step was to test the adjuvant in more specific disease settings by partnering with other collaborators.

"We have a patent on this compound, but we can only take it up to a certain point until you need a partner to help you take it to the next level," she said.

"Any one group can only progress something so far."

The new finding came as part of a wider programme exploring ways to switch off dysfunctional immune cells to develop novel cancer therapies, which was supported by a $500,000 Sir Charles Hercus Research Fellowship awarded by the Health Research Council (HRC).

The study itself, just published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, was funded by the HRC and the Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fund.

"The field of immunology is developing incredibly fast with both better treatments for infectious diseases and cancer, and work like this – focusing on prevention," HRC chief executive Professor Kath McPherson said.

"New Zealand scientists are at the forefront of some of this work and the HRC is proud to support them, and their work."

Read the original article on NZ Herald.


New molecule could strengthen vaccines

8 March 2018


A group of researchers say they've developed a molecule that may be able to strengthen current vaccines and help in the development of new ones.

Research leader, Dr Bridget Stocker said the molecule, also known as an adjuvant, could be added to pre-existing vaccines.

"When you develop vaccines these days there tends to be two components; one is an antigen which gives you a specific immune response and the other is component is called an adjuvant which enhances the immune response," she said.

Once added, it unlocks a powerful reaction that combats harmful bacteria and viruses.

This reaction could also decrease the need for booster shots.

"It's very much early days but there are some vaccines, for example Whooping Cough is one of them, for which the vaccines are there, they work well, but as most people know, especially people with young children, you need to have multiple booster shots," she said.

"You actually lose immunity over the course of time."

She said the molecule could play a role in the future development of vaccines for HIV, Tuberculosis and Meningitis.

There was also the potential for it to help in the treatment of cancer, by boosting the immune cells needed to shrink tumours.

However, Dr Stocker admitted the research in that area was still in its infancy.

"It's a similar kind of idea in that you add this compound...and it boosts the type of immune cells that might be needed to see tumour regression," she said.

The research was funded by the Health and Research council, who invested $500,000 into the project.

Council CEO Kath McPherson said she couldn't be more excited with the results.

"What I like in this research is the opportunity for it to be used not just for improving treatment, but improving prevention because that means it can benefit everybody," she said.

Dr Stocker said she now wants to share the molecule with other scientists who can investigate it's effects further.

She said it could take up to twenty years before the molecule is introduced into general medicine, due to the rigorous testing required.

Read the original article on Radio New Zealand.

Victoria academic receives 2018 Fulbright grant

Centre for Biodiscovery researcher Dr Bronwyn Kivell has received a New Zealand Scholar Award Grant from Fulbright New Zealand and will travel to the United States later this year to undertake a significant research project.

Dr Kivell, from the School of Biological Sciences, will study opioid medications. Along with Professor Kirill Martemyamov at The Scripps Research Institute and Professor Lawrence Toll at Florida Atlantic University, she will work to develop a new opioid that does not cause addiction, show tolerance, or induce respiratory depression.

“In New Zealand, one in five adults suffer from chronic pain, and 40% of these sufferers report insufficient pain control. In the USA, over 30,000 people die from opioid overdoses every year,” says Dr Kivell. “Patients build up a tolerance to gold-standard opioids like morphine, which can lead to misuse of both prescription and illegal opioids in an effort to manage pain.”

Fulbright NZ offers a range of grants to researchers from New Zealand or the USA who want to study, research, or teach in each other’s countries. The goal is to form collaborations to solve some of the world’s most challenging issues.

As well as the direct benefits to her research project, Dr Kivell says the Fulbright grant gives her many other advantages.

“This work could lead to long-term collaborations which could enhance research in the future,” says Dr Kivell. “The Fulbright Grant gives researchers the chance to develop their careers through networking and shared goals.”

Dr Kivell will also have the opportunity to access cutting-edge equipment that is currently not available in New Zealand. She will learn new techniques and complete a new range of tests enabling her to provide advice to Victoria on equipment that will help expand the boundaries of research here.

The full list of Fulbright Scholars can be viewed here