Immunology research: let’s talk about vaccines

The British Society for Immunology’s Chief Executive tells us about creating a healthy environment for immunology research.

The British Society for Immunology’s mission is to promote excellence in immunological research, scholarship and clinical practice in order to improve human and animal health. We spoke to Chief Executive Doug Brown about the importance of immunology and the role vaccines play.

To begin, can you give us a brief introduction into immunology: what is it and what does it involve?

Immunology is the study of the immune system. The immune system is essential to the survival of both animals and humans. The immune system can act very quickly to fight against any type of infection the best that it can. However, sometimes infections do take hold and when they do, the immune system can react in a number of different ways. For example, if the body and the immune system have seen that infection previously, then it will keep a record of that pathogen/infection. As a result it is then able to clear the pathogen before the person even notices that they have been infected. As you can imagine, it’s an incredibly complex system; one that’s evolved over millions of years and interacts with many different systems within the body. The immune system is a finely balanced system that allows our bodies to fight against infections as best as they can.

The study of immunology is really important for three main reasons. Firstly, we need to understand how it operates. For example, when we’re being challenged by millions of different bugs and pathogens every day, how and why do we continue to survive? Secondly, we also want to understand what happens when we get infected by infectious pathogens and harmful diseases. Finally, although most of the time the immune system is great and will fight infections, sometimes it can go wrong and end up attacking the body. This is known as autoimmunity; examples include multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. We need to be able to understand why this happens in order to create preventative measures and treatments in the future.

Can you tell us about vaccines and the role they play? What are some of the latest developments in this area?

Vaccines are one of medicine’s miracles; they were borne out of immune system research. There is now a huge amount of research going into developing new vaccines, and we have vaccines available to treat many different infections and diseases. Vaccination is one of the most effective public health interventions we have. Some of these diseases, such as smallpox, have been completely eliminated through vaccination, and others are near elimination, such as polio.

Moreover, there are three main research and policy issues here. The first one is looking at the uptake of childhood vaccinations. At the moment there’s a real concern about the decrease in the uptake of childhood vaccinations we’re experiencing in the UK. We’re seeing the uptake go down, and we’re seeing that have an effect within the UK in terms of measles outbreaks. It should be noted that this issue is not confined to the UK, it is something that’s affecting pretty much every country in Europe, and also North America.

In the UK, vaccine confidence is very high; 95% of the population are very confident in the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations. The problem is that people are not able to access vaccines in their local community. The government is listening, which is great; and we are trying to get local authority services to increase access and accessibility to vaccination services. From a European perspective, it is a mixed picture: we don’t yet have a good handle of what we could do at the European level which is why the BSI is working with other immunological societies across Europe to put together a task force on vaccines.

When we look at vaccines generally, there’s a global aspect to this; we need to see vaccines continue to be delivered to communities across the world to prevent disease. There are vaccines that are currently available but not being delivered in those countries to a scale that we need them to be. We need to make sure that the funding is there so that we can deliver vaccinations to those who need them.

The third area is immunology research and development. There is not enough attention on the role vaccines can play in our fight against antimicrobial resistance. We know that when there is an infection outbreak, there is an increase in the use of antibiotics, even if that infection is not of bacterial origin. We need to see more resources put into developing vaccines to prevent these diseases in the first place, which will in turn reduce the use of antibiotics.  If we can see bigger, better, and more effective vaccination programmes, this should be a positive step in the fight against antimicrobial resistance and we need to remind the community that current and future vaccines developed through research will be key in this.

What is the work and role of the BSI?

First and foremost, we work our socks off to create an environment for immunology research to thrive. We’re a membership organisation with over 4000 members working within the immunology space worldwide. We are the largest immunology society in Europe, and the third largest in the world. We’re working to bring the community together to support collaboration, and to think about how we can encourage early career researchers to come into this field. We are looking to bring the community together to create an environment that allows researchers to do the very best research possible, so that we can translate the outputs of that research into human and animal health benefits as quickly as possible.

Another aim is about building on the community and thinking about what we can do to create change in the outside world. We are a charity, and I’m very passionate that charities exist to change the world for the better. Therefore, by working with and through our community, we can start to look at how we have an impact in research and development, translation, treatment development, and public health policy to make sure that the outputs of research do end up creating change and making a difference to both animal and human health.

Doug Brown

Chief Executive

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