Antimicrobial Agents and Infectious Diseases

Vaccine Development Accelerated by Test Tube Immune System


An in vitro system in which vaccines can be tested without waiting for clinical trial approval is ready to help researchers bring new vaccines to the public as quickly as possible.

The project was funded by the Ragon Institute in Boston, which was founded by scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a vaccine against HIV/AIDS.  Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London also participated in this research.

The problem they explored was how to determine if a vaccine candidate can stimulate the human immune system to produce the right antibodies against a particular pathogen, and in enough quantity to be useful.  In the past, this required testing the vaccine in human beings, which meant applying for funding, getting approval, and conducting a clinical trial – a minimum of three years of work if your vaccine candidate looked promising enough to garner support.

The new system tests vaccines in cultured human cells supplemented with nanoparticles that connect the antigens in the vaccine with molecules that stimulate the cells’ immune systems.  If the cells produce the right kind of antibodies in response – antibodies that flag the offending pathogen for destruction or disrupt the pathogen’s lifecycle – the vaccine is considered effective.

“We can make these cells very quickly…become antibody-producing cells,” said lead author Facundo Batista.  “This is quite important because, until now, the only way this has been done is through vaccinating people.”

In addition to allowing researchers to bypass the administrative machinery of clinical trials and rapidly test vaccine effectiveness, the new technique will make mass antibody production easier so new therapies can get to the bedside as fast as possible.  It will also allow scientists to gain a better understanding of how vaccines work.  The result will be vaccines that can act against more types of pathogens and genetic variations in pathogens, an important part of making effective vaccines for fast-evolving microbes like HIV.  The Ragon researchers tested their system on strains of tetanus, HIV, and influenza, and produced useful antibodies against all of them.

For more information, go to the July 24 issue of The Journal of Experimental Medicine 214(7); jem.20170633; DOI: 10.1084/jem.20170633.