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Scope 42 - The Science of Vaccination

16 July 2010

With the success of the worldwide polio vaccination programmes, which have virtually eradicated new cases of the disease, images of entire hospital wards filled with rows of patients in iron lungs are thankfully a thing of the past.  

In fact vaccination is generally considered one of the most effective means of preventing the spread of infectious disease and is credited with increasing our life span by 30 years since the turn of the last century.

The earliest report of vaccination dates back to the late 17th century when English physician Edward Jenner used pus scraped from cowpox blisters on the hands of a milkmaid to protect a small boy against infection with smallpox.  Although this is a rather crude example of a preventative vaccine, the theory behind it still relevant today.  By exposing your body to a weakened form of a particular infectious bacteria or virus, a vaccine fools it into thinking it is under attack. This gives your immune system the opportunity to learn how to defend itself, should it ever be invaded by the actual pathogen.  A current example of such a vaccine is Gardasil, pioneered by Prof Ian Frazer from the University of Queensland, Australia, which is currently being given to teenage girls to protect against infection with human papillomavirus, the leading cause of cervical cancer.  

The Malaghan Institute has a groundbreaking vaccine programme that is committed to the development of more effective vaccines against parasites such as human hookworm and the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.  However, our scientists also believe that the immune system can be taught to fight any disease, not just those caused by infectious organisms.  

For over a decade the Malaghan Institute has been developing a therapeutic dendritic cell cancer vaccine, which is currently being evaluated in a Phase I Clinical Trial for glioblastoma multiforme. This research is headed by Dr Ian Hermans, a recent recipient of a prestigious HRC programme grant to conduct a clinical trial of a vaccine against melanoma. Our scientists are also working on a therapeutic vaccine that has the potential to alleviate the symptoms of asthma. These vaccines work differently to the preventative vaccines described above in that they are given to an individual after they have already shown signs of disease.