Newborn babies can’t be immunized against most diseases because they’re unable to mount effective immune responses to most vaccines. Instead, pediatric vaccines are given at two, four and six months of age, when the immune system is more responsive. But that leaves newborns—with undeveloped immune systems—highly vulnerable to severe infections. Worldwide, more than two million newborns and infants under six months of age die from infectious diseases every year.
Ofer Levy, MD, PhD, in the Division of Infectious Diseases, wants to change that by developing vaccines that will work in babies. He’s been studying how to enhance the immune system at birth so that newborns can respond to vaccines effectively. On Friday, the researcher received a $2.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop vaccines for newborns.
Levy notes that the ability to vaccinate newborns—rather than wait until they reach 2 months of age—would provide important global health benefits. “In many countries, birth is a point of contact with healthcare systems,” he says. “Families may not see a health care provider after that. From a global health perspective, if you can give a vaccine at birth, a much higher percentage of the population can be covered.”
Even in wealthier nations, newborns, particularly those born prematurely, are vulnerable to infections during the two-month window before immunizations begin. “By boosting the immune response to vaccines, we hope to not only be able to close this window of vulnerability, but also reduce the number of doses needed,” says Levy. “If we can get vaccines to work effectively in a single dose in these young infants, we can reduce costs and avoid giving patients multiple injections.”
With the support of this grant, Levy’s team will develop a new, cutting-edge in vitro platform to model human newborn immune responses to vaccine formulations, in hopes of predicting vaccine safety and efficacy. “Moving forward, we hope this will become a very important platform for evaluating pediatric vaccines,” says Levy.