Immunology is a field begging for expertise of the sort Irvine brings. For many years, researchers have struggled to develop vaccines against some of the world’s most deadly diseases, and they’re growing desperate for new strategies and technologies. “The old ways of making vaccines don’t work for all of the horrible worldwide infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria,” says Norman Letvin, a professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “The easy vaccines”—such as the polio and smallpox vaccines—”have been made, but the difficult ones are really difficult,” says Letvin, who is trying out some of Irvine’s materials as part of his work on an HIV vaccine.
Vaccine makers know that it’s important to vaccinate people using several different immune system-stimulating molecules. But they think their new vaccines have been failing because they haven’t been able to control where or how fast those molecules spread through the body or how quickly enzymes chew them up, decommissioning them before they’ve had a chance to do their work.
“We need to control the degradation, release, and localization” of the vaccine, says Letvin. “Biomaterials are potentially a powerful tool for this.” By encapsulating or binding key vaccine ingredients with biomaterials, Irvine hopes to give vaccinologists the control they seek. The result could be vaccines that stimulate precisely the right immune response without causing side effects.
Irvine will, of course, need to deal with the same safety issues all vaccinologists face. The immune system is powerful, and manipulating it in the wrong way could have disastrous consequences. Because Irvine’s technology involves the fundamental biological mechanisms of the immune system, “the potential benefits are huge. But the potential risks become bigger as well,” says Yale’s Saltzman.
But regardless of whether his novel materials prove useful in the short term, Irvine is breaking new ground by bringing engineering principles and quantitative analysis to immunology. “He’s showing us that you can understand complicated biology and design materials,” says Saltzman. “He’s showing you can do both things at once.”