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Can we hypercharge vaccines?

April 21, 2016

BOSTON (April 21, 2016) - Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital report that a fatty chemical naturally found in damaged tissues can induce an unexpected kind of immune response, causing immune cells to go into a "hyperactive" state that is highly effective at rallying infection-fighting T-cells. The findings, published online by Science on April 21, could enhance vaccines and make them much more effective.

The researchers, led by Jonathan Kagan, PhD, got a five times greater adaptive immune response in mice when using the chemical, called oxPAPC. They believe that oxPAPC or a related synthetic compound could be used to help immunize people against a wide range of infections. "We think this could be a general means to increase response to any type of vaccine," says Kagan, also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

oxPAPC targets only dendritic cells -- sentinels that circulate around the body searching for microbes and activating T-cells to destroy the invaders. Previously, it was thought that dendritic cells (also commonly known as antigen-presenting cells) have just two states: an inactive state, in which they can search for microbes, and an active state, in which they have encountered a microbe and gain the ability to activate T-cells.

"We identified a naturally-occurring molecule that creates a heightened, 'hyperactive' state of dendritic cell activation," says Kagan. "These hyperactive cells live for a long time and are the best activators of T-cells that we know of, so this could be a very useful tool in vaccine development."

In particular, when they gave oxPAPC to mice, they saw strong activation of memory T-cells. Memory T-cells respond more effectively to invaders than other kinds of T-cells, but are not efficiently elicited by ordinary activated dendritic cells.

Kagan's team further showed that hyperactivated dendritic cells make a critical protein, IL-1ß, that triggers memory T-cell production. Dead dendritic cells also release IL-1ß, but only for a short period of time. Hyperactivated dendritic cells produce IL-1ß for longer times, which likely explains why they are such effective stimulators of memory T-cells.

Finally, the researchers found that oxPAPC's key target is an enzyme called caspase-11. When activated by other molecules, caspase-11 triggers cell death and inflammation. But when activated by oxPAPC, the enzyme promotes hyperactivation of dendritic cells.

"These discoveries highlight that dendritic cells and caspase-11 can have more than one activation state, which was never before known," says Kagan.

Kagan and Boston Children's Hospital's Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO), have filed for a patent on this work and are seeking investor interest so they can move oxPAPC or a similar compound toward a clinical trial. (For inquiries, contact Abbie.Meyers@childrens.harvard.edu.) While the work was in mice, Kagan notes that other studies have shown that the biology of dendritic cells is similar in mice and humans.
-end-
Kagan and first author Ivan Zanoni, PhD, are part of the Department of Gastroenterology at Boston Children's Hospital. Supporters of the study include the National Institutes of Health (grants AI093589, AI072955, P30 DK34854, 1R01AI121066-01A1 and HDDC P30 DK034854), Mead Johnson & Company, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Cariplo Foundation.

About Boston Children's Hospital

Boston Children's Hospital is home to the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. More than 1,100 scientists, including seven members of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 members of the Institute of Medicine and 10 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Boston Children's research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Boston Children's today is a 404-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care. Boston Children's is also the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. For more, visit our Vector and Thriving blogs and follow us on our social media channels: @BostonChildrens, @BCH_Innovation, Facebook and YouTube.

Boston Children's Hospital

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