A clean, safe vaccine booster

Media releases, New Zealand

Most vaccines need a ‘magic’ booster or adjuvant to boost our immune response to the vaccine. But the best adjuvants are too toxic for human use.

Now NZ scientists believe they have created a powerful and safe adjuvant and are trialling it as part of a new cancer vaccine.

Scientists at Industrial Research Limited (IRL) in Wellington anticipate that the new synthetic adjuvant could work across a wide range of vaccines against viruses, bacteria and cancer.

The commercial potential is large, as only one adjuvant is currently licensed for use in human vaccines in the USA according to Richard Furneaux, Group Leader of Carbohydrate Chemistry at IRL.

For years immunologists have used Freund’s adjuvant to boost immune responses in animal studies of vaccines. It’s usually an extract from the mycobacteria that cause TB.

But the associated toxic side-effects have prevented these adjuvants being used in humans. IRL’s adjuvant is a glycolipid, a carbohydrate-based molecule derived from the cell wall of mycobacteria. It seems to have much of the same immune system-stimulating effect without the dangerous side-effects.

And because the new adjuvant has been made from scratch it can be precisely defined.

“Modern vaccines need to be composed of chemically defined components,” explains Richard. “Our adjuvant appears to have similar properties to old-fashioned adjuvants, but it has been chemically synthesised.”

Now IRL has entered in to an agreement with a leading New Zealand research centre, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, to test out their adjuvant with a cancer vaccine.

The vaccine uses the patient’s own cells, in this case immune system cells called dendritic cells, which have been trained to recognise tumour antigens. These trained cells turn the immune system against the tumour.

The cancer vaccine collaboration has two additional partners, Victoria University’s commercialisation arm Victoria Link and the local development agency Grow Wellington.

The collaborators are testing the combination of Malaghan’s vaccine with IRL’s adjuvant in tumour models of melanoma to determine whether the vaccine works better in the presence of the adjuvant. The studies will form part of the pre-clinical evidence required to take the vaccine-adjuvant combination into clinical trials.

At the same time, IRL’s process development and manufacturing subsidiary GlycoSyn will develop the process needed to produce the adjuvant for clinical use.

“We are planning to spin the adjuvant technology into a company of its own, possibly as early as the middle of next year,” says Richard. “Then we’ll be in a position to seek out other potential users of the adjuvant.”

The vaccine market is worth around US$12 billion annually and is expected to grow by 13% p.a. to 2010.


Mycobacterium species include the bacterial pathogens responsible for causing tuberculosis and leprosy. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is commonly used to prepare Freund’s Complete Adjuvant, which is forbidden for use in humans due to its toxicity.

Adjuvants work by stimulating the immune system to produce either antibody or T-cell-mediated immune responses following vaccination, while having little or no specific antigenic effect itself.

Currently, there are very few adjuvants available for clinical use, in fact, aluminium salts collectively known as alum are the most commonly used. The adjuvant MPL, structurally related to bacterial cell wall components known as lipopolysaccharides, was developed by US biotech company Corixa, that was subsequently bought by UK-based pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in 2006 for €233 million.

The vaccine market is worth around US$12 billion annually and is expected to grow by 13% p.a. to 2010.


The Australia New Zealand Biotechnology Partnership Fund (ANZBPF) is designed to facilitate and accelerate trans-Tasman biotechnology industry collaboration. It was established in 2004 in response to recommendations of the Biotechnology Taskforce and is administered by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

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Or Niall Byrne, Science in Public, +61 (3) 9398 1416, +61 417 131 977, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au