Dr. Shelly McNeil

Dr. Shelly McNeil

Dr. Shelly McNeil

Inflammation, Infection & Immunity

Boosting immunity:

Infectious diseases pose the greatest threat to the very young, the very old, and people whose immune systems have been weakened by chronic disease. Dr. Shelly McNeil and her colleagues are testing a new shingles vaccine for people with cancer, autoimmune diseases and organ transplants, along with new approaches to influenza vaccines for the elderly and immune-compromised.

Influenza is a particular concern for Dr. McNeil, who leads a national network that tracks serious outcomes of the flu. She and her colleagues have found that current vaccines – which are highly effective for younger people – are capable of preventing only about 50 per cent of influenza-related hospitalizations in people over the age of 65. She’s been a lead investigator in clinical trials to see if adjuvant-enhanced flu vaccines provide better protection for the elderly. Now she and her colleagues are planning trials of a new vaccine delivery system that uses a tiny needle, more like an epi-pen than a syringe, to put the vaccine into the skin instead of into the muscle.

“There is a much higher concentration of immune cells in the skin than there is in the muscles, so injecting the vaccine into the skin leads to a superior antibody response,” explains Dr. McNeil, a professor of infectious diseases at Dalhousie Medical School and staff physician at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. “The new system has proven very effective in the elderly and now we want to see how well it works with immune-compromised patients.”

The new system also opens the door to an entirely new concept in vaccination – self-administration. “Because it is just a tiny pinprick and not a needle, people can give it to themselves,” she says. “This approach overcomes some of the biggest barriers to getting vaccinated – the inconvenience of booking an appointment or going to a clinic, and the fear of needles. Increasing vaccine coverage in the community is as important as boosting immunity in individuals.”

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