The unequivocal effectiveness of vaccinations has seen many of the world’s worst and most debilitating diseases relegated to the history books. Gone are the days when millions of people were afflicted with diseases that could leave them permanently disabled, enabling many more to live long and healthy lives. Before their invention however developing an immunity to a disease often meant enduring it, something ranged from a mild inconvenience to a life threatening prospect. Our biology takes care of part of that, with some immunity passing down from mother to child, however we’d never witnessed that outside our branch on the biology tree of life. New research shows though that bees in fact have their own form of natural immunity that queens pass onto their workers.
The research, conducted by scientists at Stanford University and published in PLOS Pathogens a couple days ago, shows that queen bees immunize their worker bees against certain types of pathogens that would otherwise devastate the colony. The mechanism by which this works is actually very similar to the way many vaccines work today. Essentially the queen bee, who rarely leaves the hive, is fed on a combination of pollen and nectar called royal jelly. This food actually contains a variety of pathogens which typically would be deadly to the bees.
However the queen bee has what’s called a fat body, an organ which functions similarly to our liver. Once the pathogen has been broken down in the queen bee’s gut it’s then transferred to the fat body where parts of the pathogen are wrapped up in a protein called vitellogenin. This is then passed onto her offspring who, when they hatch, now have immunity to pathogens that would otherwise kill them. What’s interesting about this process is that it has the potential for aiding current bee populations which have been collapsing around the world over the past decade.
Whilst the root cause of the widespread colony collapse is still under intense debate there are several potential causes which could be mitigated by using this mechanism. Essentially we could devise vaccines for some of the potential problems that bee colonies face and introduce them via spraying flowers with them. Then, when the pollen is brought back to the queen, all the subsequent bees would get the immunity, protecting them from the disease. This could also aid in making the end product better for humans, potentially eradicating problems like botulism toxin which sometimes makes its way into honey.
It’s always interesting to see common attributes like this pop up across species as it gives us an idea of how much of our evolutionary lineage is shared. Whilst we don’t share a lot in common with bees there are a lot of similar mechanisms at play, suggesting our evolutionary paths deviated at a common ancestor a long time ago. Something like this, whilst not exactly a revolution, does have the potential to benefit both us and our buzzing companions. Hopefully this leads to positive progress in combating colony collapse which is beneficial for far more than just lovers of honey.
Vaccines are responsible for preventing millions upon millions of deaths each year through the immunity they grant us to otherwise life threatening diseases. Their efficacy and safety is undisputed (at least from a scientific perspective anyway, which is the only way that matters honestly) and this mostly comes from the fact that they use our own immune system as the mechanism of action. A typical vaccine uses part of the virus to trigger the immune system to produce the right antibodies without having to endure the potentially deadly symptoms that the virus can cause. This response is powerful enough to provide immunity from those diseases and so researchers have long looked for ways of harnessing the body’s natural defenses against other, more troubling conditions and a recent development could see vaccines used to treat a whole host of things that you wouldn’t think would be possible.
Conditions that are currently considered terminal, like cancer, often stem from the body lacking the ability to mount a defensive response. For cancer this is because the cells themselves look the same as normal healthy cells, despite their nature to reproduce in an uncontrolled fashion, which means that the immune system ignores them. These cells do have signatures that we can detect however and we can actually program people’s immune systems to register those cells as foreign, triggering an immune response. However this treatment (which relies on extracting the patient’s white blood cells, turning them into dendritic cells and programming them with the tumour’s antigens) is expensive and of limited on-going effectiveness. However the new treatment devised by researchers at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering uses a novel method which drastically increases this treatment’s effectiveness and duration.
The vaccine they’ve created uses 3D nano structures which, when injected into a patient, form a sort of microscopic haystack (pictured above). These structures can be loaded with all sorts of compounds however in this particular experiment they loaded them with the antigens found on a specific type of cancer cells. Once these rods have been injected they then capture within them the dendritic cells that are responsible for triggering an immune response. The dendritic cells are then programmed with the cancer antigens and, when released, trigger a body wide immune response. The treatment was highly effective in a mouse model with a 90% survival rate for animals who would have otherwise died at 25 days.
The potential for this is quite staggering as it provides us another avenue to elicit an immune response, one that appears to be far less invasive and more effective than current alternatives provide. Of course such treatments are still like years away from seeing clinical trials but with such promising results in the mouse model I’m sure it will happen eventually. What will be interesting to see is if this method of delivery can be used to deliver traditional vaccines as well, potentially paving the way for more vaccines to be administered in a single dose. I know that it seems like every other week we come up with another cure for cancer but this one seems to have some real promise behind it and I can’t wait to see how it performs in us humans.
A common misconception that many people have around vaccines is that they’re a one shot deal that provides you with complete immunity from the disease in question. The efficacy of a vaccine is judged by how much it lowers the incident rate of a particular disease given ideal conditions and typically that number is high enough that herd immunity takes care of the rest. The flu vaccine is a great example of a vaccine that doesn’t provide full immunity to the disease in question (due to its highly mutable nature) but it does however give your immune system some tools with which to fight off variants of the disease should you get infected. Thus anything we can do to improve the efficacy of vaccines is important and it just so happens that lasers might be the next big thing.
Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in conjunction with the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology investigated the application of a cosmetic laser to an injection site prior to administering a vaccine. The research was primarily focused on improving the efficacy and duration of the protection offered by the influenza vaccine as its current levels could do with some improvement. The results they found were quite interesting, showing a 4 to 7 fold increase in immune response to the vaccine. Interestingly the results could not be replicated by simply increasing the dose of the vaccine, signalling that there was another mechanism in effect. The results also lend credence to one line of thinking of how adjuvants work, opening up new avenues for research.
Cosmetic lasers work by stimulating the body’s in built healing processes. Essentially they damage your dermis (without damaging the outer layer of skin) which causes an inflammation response at the site. For cosmetic purposes this is desirable as it promotes the renewal of skin cells at that site, making the skin look more youthful. For vaccines however this inflammatory response brings antigen-presenting cells to the site, the cells which are responsible for binding to pathogens or other harmful cells, which when faced with the vaccine rapidly bind to it. Interestingly enough the effect is most pronounced when used in conjunction with a typical adjuvant (Imiquimod, a topical cream) which also promotes an immune response at the site.
Interestingly this isn’t the first time that trauma at the injection site was used to promote the immune response. The smallpox vaccine used a bifurcated (split in two) needle which caused a rather unnerving wound at the injection site. This reduced the amount of vaccine required by about 4 times and resulted in the same effect, drastically reducing the cost required to vaccinate large populations. The cosmetic laser is a better approach due to the way it’s administered, reducing the chance for opportunistic infections and nocebo effects that might arise from the treatment.
Best of all whilst the research focused primarily on the influenza vaccine the same method appears to work for some of the other common vaccines. It’s still early days though as there’s a wide range of vaccines out there that will need to be tested with this method before it becomes standard procedure. Still anything that increases the effectiveness of an already high effective tool is great news as it means that these diseases will become less prevalent and, hopefully, we can reduce our mortality rates from them as well.
But also it’s just so freaking cool that lasers (LASERS!) are the things making vaccines better. It makes me unreasonably happy, for some reason… 🙂
Vaccines are the most effective form of disease prevention as they train our bodies to respond to them long before we encounter them in wild. They’re responsible for systemically wiping out several diseases that caused countless numbers of deaths around the world and have saved people from the life long consequences that survivors of said diseases would have to struggle with. You’d think with proven benefits like that the choice to use them, especially for the most vulnerable groups of people (I.E. children and the elderly), would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately it seems that as more time passes the more often I come across articles detailing the increase prevalence of anti-vaxxers and I’m struggling to understand why.
Whilst the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t exactly new, indeed as long as there has been vaccines there have been those who have been opposed to them, this current wave can trace its origins back to Andrew Wakefield’s long since discredited research linking the MMR vaccine to autism spectrum disorders in children. Even though he has since been very publicly shamed over the matter people still seem to link vaccines with all sorts of disorders they are simply incapable of producing. Worse still is the fact that this baseless fear is now spreading to other vaccines, modern ones with impeccable safety and efficacy records.
This little bastard is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is responsible for nearly all cervical cancers found in women today. Thankfully we have a vaccine for it now and all it requires is 3 shots over the course of 6 months to eliminate the risk of ever getting it. The vaccine is most effective when delivered to children when they’re young or in their early teens but it is still effective in older individuals (my wife had hers when she was in her early twenties). Recent studies show that despite its proven track record of efficacy and safety parents are becoming increasingly worried about it with many stating that they’ll never vaccinate their children for HPV:
A rising percentage of parents say they won’t have their teen daughters vaccinated to protect against the human papilloma virus, even though physicians are increasingly recommending adolescent vaccinations, a study by Mayo Clinic and others shows. More than 2 in 5 parents surveyed believe the HPV vaccine is unnecessary, and a growing number worry about potential side effects, researchers found. The findings are published in the new issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Five years ago, 40 percent of parents surveyed said they wouldn’t vaccinate their girls against HPV. In 2009, that rose to 41 percent, and in 2010, to 44 percent.
Let’s tackle the idea that the vaccine is unnecessary first as this means parent’s believe their children simply don’t need it, something which should be easy to prove by looking up cancer rates. I’d accept that it’d be unnecessary if the incident rates were low but the fact of the matter is that cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women and the fifth most deadly. The rates might look statistically low however if you could eliminate that risk with a simple (and usually free) vaccination course I think you’d do it if it was any other form of cancer. Calling it unnecessary simply shows your ignorance of how prevalent it really is.
The side effects of the HPV vaccine are also well known and for the vast majority (we’re talking 99.9999% here, and I’m not exaggerating) are mild and easily treatable with over the counter analgesics. In those rare cases where there are severe reactions doctors are trained in how to respond to them and patients will fully recover in short order. All of the other reported side effects, everything from waking comas to deaths, can not be casually linked to the vaccine. Indeed in the 20 or so cases of deaths reported as adverse reactions to the vaccines none of them were found to be caused by the vaccine and were explained by other factors. Considering some 40 million people have been vaccinated with it so far and we can’t attribute anything but eradication of cancer and some mild side effects I think its fair to assume its safe.
I know I’ve been beating this horse (which seems to keep reviving itself) for some time now but it does really get to me that people are being wilfully ignorant of the facts behind vaccines about how effective, safe and necessary they really are. Sadly whilst it didn’t take me long to find all this information it was shown right alongside a whole treasure trove of anti-vaxxer bullshit which is why I continue to write things like this. It’s my hope that someone looking for good information on the subject will stumble across my posts like these and hopefully be convinced that vaccines really are worth it.