While pre-clinical research into this vaccination technique is still underway, he's now searching for a commercial partner to help take it to the next stage.
Professor Gowans' work has focused on utilizing the so-called "accessory" or "messenger" cells in the immune system, called dendritic cells, to activate an immune response. These are a type of white blood cell that play a key role during infection and vaccination.
"There's been a lot of work done in the past to target the dendritic cells, but this has never been effective until now," Professor Gowans says. "What we've done is incredibly simple, but often the simple things are the best approach. We're not targeting the dendritic cells directly – instead, we've found an indirect way of getting them to do what we want."
Professor Gowans and his team have achieved this by including a protein that causes a small amount of cell death at the point of vaccination.
"The dead cells are important because they set off danger signals to the body's immune response. This results in inflammation, and the dendritic cells become activated. Those cells then create an environment in which the vaccination can be successful,"
Using a micro-needle device provided by United States company FluGen Inc., the researchers can puncture the skin to a depth of 1.5mm, delivering the vaccination directly into the skin. "We chose the skin instead of the muscle tissue, which is more common for DNA vaccines, because the skin has a high concentration of dendritic cells," Professor Gowans says.
Because the technique has the potential to translate to other, more common viruses in addition to the devastating HIV and Hepatitis C, the project attracted seed funding from The Hospital Research Foundation, and additional funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
The research is still in the pre-clinical phase, with a patient study due next year. "This technique has worked much better than I anticipated,"
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