More than just vaccines


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A risk worth taking–And one your immune system is prepared to take.

When was the last time you made an important decision with 100% certainty?

Most, if not all, decisions in life come with risks, consequences or trade-offs. Healthcare is no different from anything else. Every surgery, pill, shot, even every new diet or exercise routine has its risks. And vaccines are not exempt. It’s true, vaccines have risks (probably the most common one for most vaccines is soreness at the injection site). And it’s no secret either—check out this list on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website. They even list extremely rare reported events that they can’t prove were related to vaccination, but occurred around the same time.

Early recipients of vaccines understood side effects all too well. In the 1700’s, vaccination against smallpox, which entailed rubbing pus from an afflicted person into a small cut, was known to cause a mild form of disease, and in 1-2% of cases, death. But to those who saw what real smallpox could do firsthand, the risk was worth it, because even if they didn’t yet know how it worked, they knew that vaccination saved lives.

These days, vaccines are far safer, but the fear of potential side effects often overshadows the fear of disease. Perhaps the most notorious of these fears is the alleged and debunked link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.  Many researchers have taken an honest and thorough look at this and the question has been settled from a scientific standpoint.

As is the case with everything, though, people factor things besides scientific evidence into their decisions. For example, a sense of social responsibility may influence your decision to get the flu shot each year. You may also factor in anecdotes about a co-worker’s friend getting the flu after being vaccinated. Though rejecting one piece of information and blindly accepting another is everyone’s right, making an informed decision requires consideration of all types of information.

Many take the reasonable route of deferring to their doctors who have hopefully kept abreast of the scientific evidence and have likely seen the anecdotal evidence first hand. A doctor may defer to the recommendations of an organization like the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a rotating group of doctors and scientists who painstakingly study the science and side effects of every vaccine that goes onto the market. You can learn more about ACIP here and even attend their meetings if you want.

Then there are some who would like to have a couple of questions answered and to feel more involved and informed about their own, or their children’s health care. And then some who are just plain scared of the potential side effects. These lingering questions and fears surrounding vaccination are worth addressing (not to mention scientifically fascinating). For a thorough list of such questions, I recommend this site (and of course, it’s always wise to speak with a trusted healthcare professional about your concerns). Over the next couple of posts, I plan to explore some recent research that sheds light on a just couple of these questions:

First, can a vaccine make you sick? And second, why do vaccinated people still catch disease?

One way to explore the first question is look at the differences between the altered form of a virus found in a vaccine and the real deal. For something like the flu shot, which contains dead virus, the difference is obvious. If the virus is not alive, it can’t get into cells and replicate. It can, and should, activate immune cells, which could bring along soreness or a headache.

You may have heard about people getting the flu, or flu symptoms from the flu shot itself. There is some evidence that the act of getting the flu shot can put you at risk for the flu. One study published last year concluded that just going to the doctor slightly increased the probability of experiencing flu-like symptoms within the following two weeks (read this for more). If you get the vaccine at a clinic or doctor’s office, you could increase your chance of contact with people who have the flu or surfaces they have recently touched. It takes about a week for your body to generate antibodies good enough to protect you from the virus, so it’s definitely possible to get sick just after being vaccinated. For more flu myths, check out this list.

For some diseases, like measles, the immune system really needs to see a live vaccine to generate long-term immunity. The reason for this is not completely clear, but we do know that it takes a while for our bodies to generate the “best and brightest” long-lived immune cells and a dead vaccine may be cleared too quickly for this to happen. So, we’re stuck with live vaccines, at least until researchers come up with something better.

Do live vaccines have more risks than dead ones? Well, for some people, yes. There are a handful of case reports of kids with rare genetic immunodeficiency disorders getting polio from the vaccine, and live vaccines could make someone with uncontrolled AIDs sick. However, there have been very few reports of HIV+ people getting sick after receiving a live viral vaccine (Summarized here).  And just to be safe, the CDC recommends pregnant women and those on immune-depleting chemotherapy avoid most live vaccines, though there is not a lot of data for or against them in those cases.

Measles pneumonia - Histopathology

Lung cells fusing together into one, measles-infected “giant cell.”

But what about in the average healthy person? What happens after a live virus vaccine enters your body, and how is it different from a live, natural, infectious virus? Let’s take a closer look at the recently popular measles vaccine. The virus used in for measles vaccine is “weakened” because it’s been grown, harvested, and grown again and again in human or chicken cells in culture dishes. The virus adapted to its environment in a culture dish, and lost its potency in the human body. On a molecular scale, scientists are still collecting information about exactly how this “weakening” happens. One thing they know is that the vaccine version of the virus infects different kinds of cells than the natural version of the virus does.

One researcher working toward a better understanding of this question is W. Paul Duprex, at the Boston University School of Medicine. His lab engineered measles viruses to glow by giving them the gene for the jellyfish green fluorescent protein (GFP). Then they infected macaques monkeys with either the infectious natural measles virus or the vaccine strain and looked for the glowing viruses in different parts of the animals’ bodies. When they looked for the virus in blood or throat swabs, they found much less—orders of magnitudes less—of the vaccine strain compared to how much natural virus was growing in the monkeys. The researchers also examined slices of lymph nodes with a microscope and measured GFP in immune cells using a laser and detected very little, if any, of the vaccine virus strain inside immune cells. The infectious version, on the other hand, seemed to love infecting and dividing inside of immune cells.

Both viruses were able to infect one type of innate immune cell, but only in the lungs. And, it’s important to note that the scientists delivered both types of virus straight into the animals’ airways, so both strains had ample opportunity to infect. Just this month, though they published a study that mimicked the actual vaccine route, which is an injection into a muscle, and saw that the vaccine virus also only infected innate immune cells in the muscle. To see pictures of Duprex’s “glowing” virus infecting these cells, check out this recent National Geographic blog post.

When these innate immune cells, called dendritic cells and macrophages, get infected, they display little bits of the virus to other immune cells in nearby lymph nodes. For this reason, they are called professional antigen presenting cells. Other immune cells in the lymph nodes will generate a response, clear the present virus, and remember it well enough to prevent infection with the natural version in the future.

If innate immune cells brought the natural virus to the lymph nodes, cells in the lymph node would become infected and the virus would continue to spread throughout the body. This research is just getting started, but so far it looks like the vaccine version of the virus is well contained by dendritic cells and macrophages. They are professionals after all, and they do this kind of thing all day every day.

So, should you fear live viral vaccines? Well, do you fear the live bacteria, viruses and fungi living all over your body? Your immune system has done a good job at keeping them in check so far. If you’re generally healthy, a live viral vaccine is like a blip on your immune system’s radar.

I think of it like going on a roller coaster. You can stand in line and mull over all of the things that have a one in a million chances of going wrong, or consider the actual data–the hundreds of people who rode it without any incident just during the time you were in line.

In the case of live vaccines, millions of people have had them with no incident just in the past year. And unlike a roller coaster ride, the marginal risks of measles vaccination are exchanged for a major, life-long benefit.

Please note:

I am not a medical professional and the opinions within this blog are not intended to be used as medical advice.


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Angel J. (1998). Vaccine-Associated Measles Pneumonitis in an Adult with AIDS, Annals of Internal Medicine, 129 (2) 104-106. DOI: 10.7326/0003-4819-129-2-199807150-00007

de Vries R.D., Lemon K., Ludlow M., McQuaid S., Yüksel S., van Amerongen G., Rennick L.J., Rima B.K., Osterhaus A.D.M.E. & de Swart R.L. & (2010). In vivo tropism of attenuated and pathogenic measles virus expressing green fluorescent protein in macaques., Journal of virology, PMID:

Rennick L.J., Thomas J. Carsillo, Ken Lemon, Geert van Amerongen, Martin Ludlow, D. Tien Nguyen, Selma Yüksel, R. Joyce Verburgh, Paula Haddock & Stephen McQuaid & (2014). Live-Attenuated Measles Virus Vaccine Targets Dendritic Cells and Macrophages in Muscle of Nonhuman Primates, Journal of Virology, 89 (4) 2192-2200. DOI:


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Tuning down the immune system could improve the flu vaccine

This post is based on an article I recently wrote for an internship application, so it’s more formal than a typical post, but I think it’s a cool story that helps explain how the flu vaccine works. Enjoy! And stay healthy!

After more than 2,000 confirmed cases and over twenty deaths, the 2013-14 flu season is still approaching its peak.  Vaccination remains the best prevention despite the flu vaccine’s hit-or-miss reputation.   Each year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends three strains of influenza that the World Health Organization believes are worth targeting, and six months later the season’s new vaccine is distributed.


This nasty viral particle is trying to get inside a cell. It’s covered in NA (red) and HA (blue) proteins.

One of the flu vaccine’s biggest problems is its inability to induce immunity against multiple viral subtypes.  Subtypes of the influenza A virus, like H1N1 or H5N1 are distinguished by the surface proteins hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA).  The vaccine can protect against a few subtypes at a time, but if a subtype not included in the shot makes a strong appearance one season, not much can be done to prevent it from spreading.  This year, the vaccine is pretty spot on. It includes H1N1 which has been making a comeback this year.

This problem has driven researchers to pursue a universal vaccine that could protect against multiple subtypes.  This type of protection is called heterotypic immunity.  One group of scientists from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital hit on an unexpected way to expand the reach of one flu vaccine to multiple subtypes.  Dr. Maureen McGargill and her group published their study in Nature Immunology in December.  They studied how a common immunosuppressive drug called rapamycin influenced the ability of vaccinated mice to generate heterotypic immunity.  They vaccinated mice with one viral subtype and infected them with three other lethal subtypes.  Surprisingly, the mice who got rapamycin were better able to resist infection by all the subtypes, including an altered H5N1 strain, commonly known as the avian flu.

Rapamycin is commonly used to dampen the immune system to prevent organ transplant rejection.  It blocks an immune system regulating protein called mTOR.  Three other animal vaccine studies previously found that rapamycin enhanced generation of memory T cells, cells that can remember a virus and kill infected cells when they detect viral proteins.  None of these studies linked higher numbers of memory T cells to protection from infection.  McGargill’s group observed both higher memory T cell numbers and better protection, but could not link the two. Rather, they found that protection was related to changes in the kinds of antibodies that the vaccine induced.

The flu vaccine contains pieces of viral proteins called antigens and mice and humans make antibodies that specifically bind these antigens on the viruses and neutralize them.  The more specific the antibodies are though, the more they drive those proteins to mutate so the virus can escape detection.  This shape-shifting tactic is called antigenic drift, and it is part of the reason it is so difficult to predict which vaccine formulation will be most effective each year.    

The coveted universal vaccine would induce antibodies that recognize parts of the virus that are shared, or conserved, by many subtypes and unlikely to mutate.  But B cells, the cells that make antibodies, tend to make more and more specific antibodies over time.  Over several weeks, B cells go from making weak, broadly binding antibodies that can cross-react with many subtypes, to strong and specific ones.   McGargill and her colleagues found that rapamycin interrupted this process and caused the mice to make more of the broadly binding antibodies.  The antibodies also targeted different parts of the hemagglutinin protein.

The group could not determine exactly how the altered antibodies contributed to protection from infection.  They concluded that the antibodies produced after rapamycin treatment were less specific and therefore able to cross-react with several viral subtypes.   As a result, the treated mice were less susceptible to the three different influenza subtypes.

These findings could be useful for quickly designing broadly protective vaccines in the face of a new subtype outbreak or epidemic.  It currently takes about six months to manufacture the annually recommended formulation.  A heterotypic vaccine would not be as dependent on the World Health Organization’s laborious surveillance and data analysis, and could be stored and used for many flu seasons.


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Keating R. et al. The kinase mTOR modulates the antibody response to provide cross-protective immunity to lethal infection from influenza virus.  Nature Immunology (2013) 14:1266-76.

McMichael A and Haynes B. Influenza vaccines: mTOR inhibition surprisingly leads to protection. Nature Immunology (2013) 14:1205-07.

Pica N and Palese P. Toward a universal influenza virus vaccine: Prospects and challenges. Ann. Rev. Med. (2013) 64:189-202.