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Constructing a better vaccine

The Holy Grail for vaccine scientists is to create vaccines that provide protection for a lifetime.

Illustration by Justin Metz

British doctor Edward Jenner is credited with creating the first vaccine in the 1790s when he inoculated a hapless young boy with cowpox and then exposed him to smallpox. The boy did not fall ill with the dreaded disease, and modern vaccinology was born.

Since that day, countless vaccines have been created, reshaping the public health landscape. “Today a child gets his first vaccine on the day he is born, and he will go on getting vaccines for the rest of his life,” says Bali Pulendran, a pathologist and a researcher at the Emory Vaccine Center. “Many of these vaccines are highly successful in controlling infectious diseases that plagued mankind for ages.”

Yet vaccinology can still come up short, as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which resulted in about 16,500 deaths worldwide, painfully clarified. Some diseases, such as malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, have proven resistant to efforts to develop an effective vaccine. And some vaccines work well in certain segments of the population but fail to provide adequate protection in others, such as the elderly.

Emory researchers are seeking solutions to these vexing problems. They have identified broadly protective antibodies in patients infected with the 2009 H1N1 virus—a promising first step toward a universal flu vaccine. They are testing man-made nanoparticles to boost the potency and longevity of other vaccines. And they are using new technology to develop biomarkers to predict a vaccine’s eventual effectiveness within a day or two of vaccination.

“There are places doing great immunology research, and there are institutions developing vaccines,” says Pulendran. “What is unique here at the Emory Vaccine Center is that we really try to fuse those two efforts. We have top-notch immunologists who are focusing their research on vaccine-related problems.

“We also have the clinical infrastructure and expertise for vaccine testing and evaluation at the Hope Clinic,” continues Pulendran. “We have access to the public health expertise at the CDC, and we have a close collaborative relationship with Georgia Tech, which is probably one of the best bioengineering places in the world. So Emory is a special place for immunology and vaccinology.”

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