Researchers have discovered a compound that could help protect the health of newborns when they are most vulnerable to infection. The compound -- a vaccine additive -- could make immunizations more effective, potentially saving the lives of millions of babies around the world every year.
Every year, bacterial and viral infections, including rotavirus, whooping cough and pneumonia, kill more than two million infants under six months of age. These newborns are especially vulnerable, experts say, because their immune systems are too immature to respond adequately to vaccines.
That's why immunizations are generally not given to babies less than two months old. These include vaccinations to guard against rotavirus -- which can cause severe diarrhea -- and polio, which older infants receive in a series. Yet in many resource-poor countries, birth might be the only time a child will have contact with a health care provider.
Ofer Levy, who studies infectious diseases at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, says researchers have been looking for a way to protect newborn health by closing this vulnerability gap:
“So we want to design a super vaccine that you can give at birth and maybe even get single shot protection or maybe fewer shots needed. But also by giving it early in life, you close the window of vulnerability inherent in the current shot schedule,” Levy said.
Levy and a team of researchers at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital have identified a small synthetic molecule, called VTX-294, that stimulates a strong immune response in samples of protective white cells taken from the umbilical cord blood of newborns. While VTX-294 also induced a strong reaction in whole blood samples taken from adults, researchers say the newborn response was as strong, if not stronger.
VTX-294 activated a type of white blood cell, called an antigen-presenting cell, which is essential to successful vaccines. Antigen-presenting cells help the immune system recognize and destroy disease-causing microorganisms if they are encountered following vaccination.
Levy says VTX-294 proved to be more potent than any compound tested so far in research to boost newborns' immune responses:
“When we say potent, it means we can have very little amounts of this compound and get a very powerful response,” Levy said.
Levy says researchers are also looking at whether the compound can boost the immune systems of cancer patients so anti-cancer agents can be more effective.
An article describing the immune-system booster VTX-294 is published in the open access journal PLoS One.