New breakthroughs are changing how we think about ‘vaccines’
Most of the vaccines available free of charge in Europe have been developed to prevent infectious diseases. Childhood immunisation programmes have helped to dramatically improve childhood survival rates by reducing the risk of catching measles, pertussis, diphtheria and several other diseases caused by viruses and bacteria.
Vaccines are not just for kids. Adolescents can now be protected against HPV; pregnant women can avail of pertussis and flu vaccines; and older people are key risk groups for flu, pneumococcal and shingles vaccination.
However, while vaccine researchers continue to search for new and better vaccines against infectious disease such as HIV and malaria, as well as tuberculosis and a universal flu vaccine, many scientists have entirely new targets: chronic diseases – including diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and cancers.
Rather than preventing infections, therapeutic vaccines mobilise the body’s immune system to fight against an existing condition.
Last week, newspaper headlines reported that a ‘cholesterol-lowering vaccine to stop hearts attacks may be close’. However, it should be noted that while the vaccine has been effective in mice, tests in humans are just beginning.
Watch: How are vaccines developed
Cancers are among the targets of the most promising therapeutic vaccines, including pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma (a rare brain cancer) which have poorer survival rates than some other cancers.
It should be noted, of course, that there are already preventative vaccines that protect against HPV-related cervical cancer and head and neck cancers. The hepatitis B vaccine also reduces the risk of liver cancer.
Several early-stage trials of vaccines against Alzheimer’s disease have shown some promise but none has yet delivered a breakthrough in larger groups of people. These vaccines aim to prevent the build-up of sticky proteins in the brain that are associated with dementia.
Work in this field is likely to continue given the need for new effective treatments and the ageing of populations in developing countries – which implies growing numbers of people affected by dementia.
One of the other big targets is diabetes, due to the rising numbers of people affected. Much of the attention in this field is on type I diabetes (which usually affects people from an early age) while there has been less progress on type II diabetes (which is associated with unhealthy lifestyles).
For the moment, the tried and trusted advice of your doctor is likely to remain – eat well and take regular exercise. And, of course, continue to vaccinate on time, every time.
Watch: Future of vaccine research