An interview with Dr Ariane Cruz Gomes

Ariane Cruz Gomes is a postdoctoral researcher at the University College London’s Institute of Immunity and Transplantation. In this interview she tells us more about her research, including developing novel vaccines by understanding their immune response and how her research has the potential to combat the threat of old and emerging infectious diseases.

Dr Ariane Cruz Gomez
© Ariane Cruz Gomez

Tell us more about your current research

Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr Matthew Reeves at University College London and my project focuses on investigating mechanisms of protection, induced by a partially protective vaccine against cytomegalovirus (CMV). CMV is considered one of the main priorities for vaccine development due to the risk it poses for immunocompromised subjects, particularly due to the long-term human and economic costs resulting in congenital infection. However, even though there is a lot of interest in developing a vaccine against CMV, with more than 50 years of research, we still don’t have a licensed vaccine.

Because of that, our main goal of the project is to understand the immune response induced by the vaccine, comparing characteristics of the humoral responses on protected versus non-protected patients. By doing so, we hope to elucidate mechanistic and clinical correlates of protection and provide information that will guide the development of novel candidates that can eliminate the burden of CMV infection.

You have previously contributed to a research paper titled ‘A Depot Adjuvant in Licensed Allergy Immunotherapy Offers New Opportunities in Malaria’. Can you tell us more about this research?

In this paper, we demonstrate that an adjuvant approved for humans in the treatment of allergies can be repurposed to improve the production of a vaccine against malaria. This repurposing of the adjuvant, came from the realisation that the adjuvant resolves allergic responses by biasing the immune system to generate a type of response called T helper 1 (Th1). Likewise, a similar Th1 response is beneficial for the control of several pathogens, including the malaria pathogen.

The process of developing, testing, and having a novel adjuvant approved for use in humans is a lengthy and expensive process. This process aims to guarantee that they are not only effective, but also safe. Thus, having an adjuvant that has gone through this process, repurposed for other uses, is a great win for vaccine developers and society in general. Additionally, it offers a new option for malaria vaccine research.

What impact do you hope this research will have on understanding how vaccines work and disease eradication?

Adjuvants have, for a long time, been called the “immunologist’s dirty little secret” to quote the famous immunologist Charles Janeway in 1989. What he meant by this phrase, was that for a long time we knew only that adjuvants improved vaccines, but not how. With the advancement of technologies and general knowledge in immunology, vaccinology and microbiology, we started having insights into the ‘black box’ of adjuvants.

This work is part of a larger research project where the aim is to understand how vaccines work and in what disease context each adjuvant is more appropriate. This is important because different pathogens often require distinct immune responses to achieve protection. Finding the right adjuvant that induces the desired response against the antigens is a major bottleneck in vaccine development. As such, research of this kind gives us more refined tools to respond to challenging pathogens and help us be better prepared to deal with the constant threat of old and emerging infectious diseases, by developing effective vaccines.

Why does understanding how vaccines work matter to microbiology?

Aside from the clear benefit of achieving long term eradication of important pathogens, I see two major aspects in microbiology that can benefit our understanding of how vaccines work. One is the dynamics of microbes as a species within a given ecosystem, and another is the relationship of microbes and their hosts. On the former, vaccines interfere with the evolution of the target micro-organism as the vaccine will act as a selective pressure. As such, the introduction of a vaccine is likely to affect the local microecosystem, population dynamics, and interactions of different micro-organisms. On the latter, finding the mechanism of protection reveals how pathogen and host interact and what type of response the host needs to develop to counteract pathogenesis. This information alone brings a plethora of data both about the lifecycle of the pathogen and about the host immune system.

Additionally, understanding the mechanism of protection of a successful vaccine supports the development and refinement of other vaccines. In the long term, those new vaccines will reduce the burden of diseases and reduce the use of antivirals and antibiotics that may select resistant strains. Currently, antibiotic resistance is becoming one of the major challenges in public health and vaccines are still our best chance of eradicating pathogenic and antibiotic resistant micro-organisms.

In summary, there are all sorts of beneficial interactions between micro-organisms and other beings, vaccines help us to fix when such interactions become problematic.