Kinase Inhibitors & Vaccines

Kinase Inhibitors as Vaccine Adjuvants: A Topical Boost to the Immune Response

Nowadays, vaccines have become so common that you probably were vaccinated with multiple shots to attend school, travel to foreign countries, or work at your job. Unlike most medicines that treat or cure diseases, vaccines are a preventative measure to avoid or reduce sickness in the first place. One of the most popular vaccines is for influenza virus, more commonly referred to as the flu shot; however, the effectiveness of the annual flu shot varies and new approaches to enhance the response to vaccination are needed. What if I told you there is a technology that boosts the immune response and effectiveness of the flu shot?

Vaccination prepares and hones the immune system to combat a pathogen, such as a bacteria or a virus. A vaccine gives a healthy person a killed or weakened pathogen. This triggers the immune system to respond and trains it to "remember" the pathogen so it can fight against it if that pathogen returns. Proper vaccine administration is essential to the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Most vaccines are injected into the skin or muscle.

Brian P. Pollack, MD, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Emory's School of Medicine, has developed an approach to improve and boost the effectiveness of current flu vaccinations. This innovation is particularly important for people with weaker immune systems such as children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

Brian Pollack, MD, PhD

Pollack noticed the growing interest and need for creating vaccines with higher efficacy, stronger safety profiles, and longer-lasting protection. His approach leverages the immune effects of a class of medicines called kinase inhibitors, initially developed to treat cancer, as vaccine "adjuvants." Adjuvants are ‘immune boosters' used to stimulate the immune system and improve the patient's response to the vaccine. It is also helpful in increasing the response so that only a single vaccination is required rather than multiple doses or shots. Adjuvants are not new and are used in some U.S. vaccines currently; however, concerns have been raised about long-term toxicity from one of the aluminum-based adjuvants.

Pollack and his colleagues have used epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors (EGFRIs), which are currently used to treat certain cancers, in conjunction with vaccination procedures. Pollack's work indicates that local application of these inhibitors produces higher chemoattractant cytokines and chemokines that recruit immune cells into the skin that can help boost the immune response.

Further, Pollack adds that kinase inhibitors "complement other approaches to enhance the response to vaccination." Pollack states that the strength of these kinase inhibitors is their rapid availability since they are already approved for human use.

"Vaccination is a growing and important pharmaceutical market, especially amidst a pandemic" says Catherine Murari-Kanti, licensing associate in the Office of Technology Transfer. "And although there are always barriers to bringing a new drug to market, a vaccine adjuvant with a key component that is already used in humans provides great commercial potential in this case."


The key findings in their study were that a single topical application of a kinase inhibitor at the site of vaccination augmented the immune response to the vaccine and enabled mice to fight off the virus better than control mice. Based on this research, the team believes that kinase inhibitors could be useful topical vaccine adjuvants to boost immune responses, antibody production, and ultimately vaccine-mediated protection.

Pollack's expertise in dermatology and dermatopathology played a large part in this discovery. His practice involves treating patients with medicines that act on the immune system. Pollack explains that his technology is applicable to vaccines outside of the flu, including other viruses or cancers. When given to patients systemically, kinase inhibitors can influence many processes including those performed by the immune system. Additionally, this technology appeals to the growing interest in needle-free and topical delivering approaches. Moreover, kinase inhibitors do not need to be formulated with any specific vaccine, thereby broadening this adjuvant's use while decreasing overall cost.

Pollack envisions the future where topically-applied vaccine adjuvants can be used universally to enhance the immune response from vaccines, infections, and skin cancers and says "the potential is significantly large." The next steps are to perform human studies and find commercial partners to help bring their technology to the public.

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