Dr. Robert Anderson, Canadian Center for Vaccinology
Outsmarting tricky viruses: Dr. Robert Anderson pioneers targeted vaccines for dengue and RSV
There’s no simple way to protect against two of the world’s most common and troublesome viruses: dengue and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). Each of these viruses provokes such a complex immune response that all past attempts to develop effective vaccines have failed.
“We need to unravel the layers and mechanisms of the immune system’s response to these viruses to develop vaccines that work,” says Dr. Bob Anderson, a researcher in the IWK’s Canadian Center for Vaccinology and professor of microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie Medical School.
Known around the world for his knowledge of both dengue and RSV, Bob is assisting colleagues in Southeast Asia with their work on a dengue vaccine.
“The incidence of dengue is rising every year, with the spread of carrier mosquitoes to wider ranges, the expansion of human populations into wild areas, and the increase in travel to tropical areas,” Bob says. “While a first exposure to the dengue virus is not usually serious, subsequent infections can lead to life-threatening hemorrhagic fever.”
With most viruses, exposure to the viral proteins triggers immunity to future infections; this is how vaccines work. The fact that one exposure to dengue makes subsequent exposures more dangerous poses a vexing problem for vaccine developers. Bob is studying this paradoxical immune response in his lab at the IWK, looking for ways to tone down the harmful mechanisms while stimulating protective ones.
At the same time, Bob is working on several vaccine strategies against RSV, a common respiratory infection that can be serious and even life-threatening for children under the age of two. “A recent U.K. study showed that RSV is a more debilitating problem for young children than influenza,” says Bob, adding that RSV infection in childhood is a risk factor for asthma.
To counter the RSV where it attacks, Bob has developed an inhaled vaccine that delivers a specially encapsulated viral protein directly into the airways. “It stimulates immunity in the mucous lining of the airways, which is our natural frontline defense against respiratory viruses,” notes Bob. He has been working with GlaxoSmithKline on a particularly promising version of this inhaled RSV vaccine. The experimental vaccine may soon be ready for testing in clinical trials.
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