Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have discovered a potential new way to stimulate the immune system to prevent or clear a viral infection. By blocking the action of a key protein in the mouse immune system, they were able to boost immune “memory” in those mice—work that may one day help doctors increase the effectiveness of human vaccines designed to prevent viral infections.
Immune memory in humans (or mice) is what allows the body—after an initial exposure to a virus—to quickly recognize, respond to, and eliminate that same virus upon some later exposure. Viral vaccines basically work through this mechanism.
Not all vaccines are 100 percent effective, however, and doctors would like to have ways of enhancing the ability of vaccines to induce immune memory. As described in an advance online Early Edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on January 26, 2010, the Scripps Research scientists were able to do just that. They significantly boosted immune memory in mice by blocking a protein called interleukin-10 (IL-10).
It may be possible to achieve the same effect in humans, says Oldstone. If a chemical that blocks IL-10 could be formulated and administered with a vaccine, it may specifically enhance the effectiveness of that vaccine. However, even if such chemicals could be discovered, it would likely take years to develop and test their safety and effectiveness before they were ready for widespread commercial use.