Researchers receive $8.6 million grant to study vaccines

A group of researchers led by Professor Aaron Esser-Kahn in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago has received an $8.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study new adjuvant candidates that can increase the efficacy and safety of vaccines.

The five-year grant, part of the NIH’s Vaccine Adjuvant Discovery Program, will allow researchers to screen a set of inflammatory pathway inhibitors as adjuvants — agents that are added to vaccines to stimulate the immune system to respond to them.

“The goal is to find new adjuvants that will reduce inflammation and increase safety,” said Esser-Kahn, associate professor in molecular engineering and principal investigator on the grant, which is awarded through NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Screening molecules for candidates

While inflammation from a vaccine can range from a sore arm to a rare cardiac event, it’s also related to the efficacy of the vaccine. By decreasing inflammation, researchers can also increase effectiveness.

To find adjuvants that can do this, the group will screen 1 million different molecules and combinations of molecules at UChicago’s Cellular Screening Facility for their ability to potentiate, or alter immune responses.

Andrew Ferguson, associate professor in molecular engineering, will use machine learning to help analyze the results and discover possible rules for how the molecules work. Jeffrey Hubbell, Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering, will then develop ways to deliver those antigens appropriately within the body. Marcin Kwissa, a senior scientist in the Hubbell lab, will examine the effects on human immune cells.

Savas Tay, associate professor in molecular engineering, will examine how the molecules affect cellular processes, while Anita Chong, professor of surgery, will evaluate how the adjuvants work on an animal model.

“Our hope is that within the first two years, we will have found interesting candidates through screening, and then we can use the next three years to develop what we found,” Esser-Kahn said.

Identifying new categories of adjuvants

The researchers will collaborate with colleagues at University of California, Irvine and the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Research Institute. The group will use the influenza vaccine to study potential adjuvants, but the results could have implications in many vaccines.

Not only do researchers hope to find a handful of new adjuvant candidates, they also hope to identify categories of adjuvants that can alter the immune system in distinct ways, like activating more antibodies.

This research builds on Esser-Kahn’s previous work, where he discovered a category of molecules that could work well as adjuvants while causing little inflammation.

“This is my lab’s most ambitious project to date, and we’re excited to get started,” he said.

Research reported in this article will be supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number 75N93019C00041.