Highlights //

The future of vaccines (2012)

Maurice Wilkins Centre investigator Professor Sarah Hook from the University of Otago is developing new vaccine formulations – including needle-free vaccines and vaccines for cancer – and national and international collaborations are a crucial part of her work.

Vaccines are a new frontier in the treatment of cancer. Copies of molecules from cancer cells are used to stimulate an immune response that helps the body to recognise and attack the cells.

“Many people are studying cancer vaccines,” says Sarah, who was promoted to Otago’s Chair in Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2012. “Our advantage is that we’ve got a really strong collaboration between the immunologists who select the target molecules, chemists who make them, and formulation specialists who work out how to deliver them and stimulate the best immune response.”

This expertise is drawn from research institutes around the country, and the Centre helped bring the scientists together, with support for meetings, cross-disciplinary research projects and studentships. The establishment of a new peptide facility with a licence to manufacture medicines, will also advance the work. Silke Neumann, a Maurice Wilkins Centre-funded PhD student in Sarah’s group, is currently developing peptide vaccine formulations and testing them in the laboratory, with the eventual aim of taking them into the clinic.

Sarah’s laboratory is also investigating new methods to deliver vaccines. “The World Health Organisation would prefer vaccines not to be given by injection if at all possible,” she explains, in part due to issues with sterile needle supply and people’s resistance to injection. She was part of a Maurice Wilkins Centre delegation to Japan in 2010 that established links with three high profile Japanese research institutions, and vaccine projects in New Zealand and Japan are now benefitting from those connections.

Sarah and her PhD student Teerawan (Mo) Rattanapak worked with Professor Masaru Ishii’s laboratory at the Osaka University Immunology Frontier Research Programme (iFReC) in 2011.

The New Zealanders are developing vaccines that can be applied directly onto the skin, for a variety of potential applications including cancer. They used advanced imaging technology at iFReC to evaluate how well their vaccines penetrate the skin and interact with immune cells, and will use the information to refine their formulations. In 2012, Sarah’s PhD student Kan Kaneko travelled to work with Dr Yasuyuki Ishii at RIKEN Research Centre for Allergy and Immunology.

Dr Ishii has developed a vaccine for cedar pollen allergy, which is a major problem in Japan, but at present it can only be given by injection. “Our role is to develop a formulation that can be taken orally, which is more acceptable for an allergy,” Sarah explains.

“The Maurice Wilkins Centre has a focus on vaccine development, especially for the treatment of cancer, and Sarah’s work will play a major role in bringing new vaccines through to the clinic,” says Director Professor Rod Dunbar.