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Equipping our immune system to fight disease - preventive vs therapeutic vaccines

22 July 2014

Generally, when we hear the word vaccine, we think of ways in which we prevent illness. However, not all vaccines are designed to help our bodies set up defences ahead of time.

Vaccination has come a long way over the years. Its initial development dates back to the late 17th century when English physician, Edward Jenner, scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of a milkmaid and applied it to a small boy in hopes it would protect him against infection with smallpox. Whilst somewhat crude and perhaps unethical, the success of Jenner’s experiment revolutionised preventive medicine.

Such preventive vaccines work by exposing our bodies to a weakened form of a particular infectious bacteria or virus. They fool it into thinking it is under attack, therefore giving our immune system the opportunity to learn how to defend itself should it ever be exposed to the actual pathogen. The flu vaccine, as well as those which protect us from contracting measles, mumps, and polio, are all examples of preventive vaccines.

Therapeutic vaccines, on the other hand, are designed to treat individuals who already show signs of a disease.

For over a decade, the Malaghan Institute has been developing therapeutic vaccines focused on treating cancer, led by Associate Professor Ian Hermans.  The goal of therapeutic vaccines is to stimulate and train the cancer-fighting white blood cells of the body, known as T cells, to seek out and destroy tumour cells wherever they appear. 

Our scientists are also working on a therapeutic vaccine that has the potential to alleviate the symptoms of asthma and allergy. Both of these vaccines aim to help teach our immune system to respond appropriately to these otherwise difficult to treat conditions.

Thanks to continually evolving immunology research at the Malaghan Institute and around the world, we're discovering new ways to tap into the immune system's inherent disease-fighting ability, which will ultimately lead to more effective ways of keeping us healthy.