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$50M Grant Funding Research to Improve Vaccine Effects

Oral polio vaccine given to child

Oral polio vaccine being given in Democratic Republic of the Congo (USAID.gov)

30 January 2015. Researchers at Stanford University in California are beginning an interdisciplinary project to improve the way vaccines harness the immune system for protecting against disease. The initiative, which will establish a Human Systems Immunology Center at Stanford, is funded by a 10-year, $50 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Immunologist and medical school professor Mark Davis is heading the project, who with colleagues aim to better understand the human immune system to develop more effective vaccines against infectious diseases. The effort will reside at Stanford’s Human Immune Monitoring Center, which Davis started in 2007. The lab provides standardized immune monitoring assessments at basic cellular and protein levels, and develops new technologies for immune monitoring.

The project plans to assess some of today’s ideas and approaches behind vaccines. Researchers will investigate reasons why some people build a resistance to infectious disease, while others fall victim to the same pathogens. Likewise, the team plans to look into factors in preclinical studies using animals for testing new vaccines that do not translate into positive outcomes when tested with humans. In addition, the Stanford researchers expect to investigate obstacles encountered in testing vaccines with conventional large-scale clinical trials that can take years to conduct and produce definitive results.

“What we need is a new generation of vaccines and new approaches to vaccination,” says Davis in a university statement. “This will require a better understanding of the human immune response and clearer predictions about vaccine efficacy for particular diseases.”

The new Human Systems Immunology Center plans to combine medical science with expertise well outside biology to generate new solutions, including Stanford’s engineering school. Expertise will be recruited from both the Stanford campus and outside, and from fields reaching into genetics, health policy, and photonics.

Vaccines are a key priority for the Gates Foundation, which aims to reduce the cost and extend the reach of vaccines, particularly in low-resource regions where an estimated 1.5 million children die each year from preventable diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia. The foundation supports efforts to boost countries’ immunization systems, develop new diagnostic tools assess immunity to disease in a population, and strengthen supply chains that transport, store, and distribute vaccines to recipients.

Earlier this week, Bill Gates told a vaccine conference in Berlin, “Over the last 15 years, we have learned a lot about what it takes to produce and introduce new vaccines. We’ve also learned a lot about the challenges of reaching all children. Increasing coverage and vaccine equity will require us to double down on what we know works and harness innovation to overcome obstacles that have capped our success for years. The good news is that we have a strong base to build on.”

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