PhD research promotes new path for COVID-19 vaccines
Research by a Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate has taken important strides towards a new category of vaccines for respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.
Dr Theresa Pankhurst (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou), who recently graduated with a PhD in Biomedical Science, has been researching adjuvants—additives that make vaccines more efficient—that could be added to mucosal vaccines.
As an airborne illness, COVID-19 infects humans through the nose and respiratory passages before entering the lungs, where serious infection can occur. Most current vaccines help build an immune response that circulates the body via the bloodstream, but don’t typically prevent infection in the lungs.
“Vaccines delivered mucosally—through the nasal passage—can set up an immune response in the nose and surrounding areas, and attack invading respiratory illnesses before they have the chance to infect the rest of the body,” Dr Pankhurst says.
Dr Pankhurst started her PhD in 2018, originally researching adjuvants for influenza vaccines, which also infect humans through the nose.
“Although there was a lot of chaos, distress, and disruption, it was exciting to be able to apply the research I had done so far to helping with the global pandemic,” Dr Pankhurst says. “I was also able to use my expertise to help answer questions that people had about vaccines and the virus.”
“Through my work I was able to harness specific immune cells that reside in the lungs, called innate-like T cells, that I found were able to enhance immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 and influenza,” Dr Pankhurst says.
These immune cells could be activated by adjuvants that could be added to mucosal vaccines that target COVID-19 and influenza.
“There are currently no licensed adjuvants for mucosal vaccines, so these new adjuvants should help propel forward the development of mucosal vaccines that provide a more relevant immune response that can prevent respiratory diseases from spreading throughout the body.”
Dr Pankhurst joined the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa NZ - Ohu Kaupare Huaketo (VAANZ) at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research to work with other leading scientists on New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Post-graduation, Dr Pankhurst is continuing her work at the Malaghan Institute, working alongside her former PhD supervisor Dr Lisa Connor investigating next generation booster vaccines for COVID-19.
“I had excellent supervision under Dr Connor and got to work alongside incredible wahine immunologists in my lab,” Dr Pankhurst says. “These relationships were the best part of my PhD, and I would not have had the great experiences I had without them. I look forward to building those relationships further.”