Last night, members of the general public, Trinity faculty and students were treated to an enlightening talk on vaccines by Trinity immunologist, Prof Kingston Mills. Mills is head of the Centre for Immunology at Trinity, leading his research team on T-cells, autoimmunity and cancer. He is also a co-founder of two biotech companies that develop immunotherapeutics.
Mills began his talk by boldly asserting that vaccines are “the greatest medical achievement of modern civilisation”, as shown by their ability to provide effective intervention and eradication of a range of life-threatening diseases. However nothing is perfect, Mills himself conceded that they are not completely free from risk and acknowledged their potential side effects.
In an amusing anecdote, Mills described the first vaccine ever developed. In 1796 Edward Jenner observed that dairymaids who were exposed to cowpox did not contract smallpox. In a radical experiment which would never be allowed today, he took pus from a cowpox pustule and used it to infect a young child. Several weeks later he exposed the boy to smallpox, and saw that the boy was immune. This new method was called “vaccination” after the Latin word for cow “vacca” and the smallpox virus has been eliminated. Two-hundred and twenty years later this method has developed to protect us from plethora of fatal infectious diseases.
Despite their proven efficacy, a danger lies in the media publishing “fake news” or unproven claims about associated risks of vaccines. This topical and ever-growing brand of fear mongering has resulted in discouraging the public from their use.
Mills discussed the first incidence of this with the MMR vaccine, where a paper by Andrew Wakefield was published that claimed that there was a link between this vaccine and developmental disorders such as autism. Mills pointed out that their research had no controls, and that multiple large epidemiological studies were done which found no such link. The damage, unfortunately, had already been done.
Although Wakefield was discredited and struck off the UK medical register, vaccination rates sharply dropped and the incidence of measles and mumps significantly increased. When high-profile public figures such as President Donald Trump endorse these claims it only adds fuel to the fire. What’s worse, Trump has reportedly appointed vaccine critic Robert F Kennedy Jr to head a committee on vaccine safety. Mills informed us that mere hours before this talk, Trump had raised concerns about the “autism myth used by anti-vaccination campaigners” – the same “autism myth” he helped propagate on his personal Twitter account a few years prior.
Mills moved on to discuss various vaccines against HPV, influenza and whooping cough, and outlined their side effects and associated misconceptions. Most recently the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine has come under fire. HPV is the leading cause of cervical, mouth and throat cancer. Mills illustrated that the HPV vaccine is reported to have 95 per cent efficacy as a preventative vaccine, it does not work as a therapeutic. Mills continued to stress the importance of girls getting vaccinated before becoming sexually active. An audience member suggested that the HPV vaccine should be offered to males as well. Mills agreed as, he explained, males can act as carriers of the virus and can suffer from genital warts as well as mouth and throat cancer. However, Mills noted that certain media outlets have reported an unverified association between the HPV vaccine and chronic fatigue syndrome. This has resulted in a drop in vaccination uptake from 87% to 50% in the last three years. Mills warned that the implications of this won’t be felt now, as cervical cancer does not develop overnight, but in twenty years from now.
So what does the future of vaccines look like? Mills went into the broader applications of vaccines outside infectious diseases, such as their promising preventive function against cancer, where an immune response is induced against a tumour. This was established in the States as a treatment for prostate cancer, unfortunately further study was limited largely by costs. Where a course of this treatment cost $90,000, the company supplying the vaccines went out of business. Mills however pointed out that there are multiple other companies currently running clinical trials in this area, so in words, “watch this space”.
Mills interestingly spoke of how vaccines have been proposed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. A very bizarre application of vaccination that Mills discussed is its use in preventing drug addiction. The idea is that most addictive drugs act on receptors in the brain, which results in a high, so inducing an immune response against the receptor would stop the drug from acting at it, eliminating the addictive nature.
The lecture concluded with the proposition of an interesting dilemma, where Mills said that “it is up to an individual to assess the risk of contracting a disease which may kill you, versus transient side effects of a vaccination that will prevent it.” Mills’ informative and topical lecture voiced ever-growing concerns and the facts surrounding the ever-important issue of vaccination and thankfully bringing it to a Trinity audience.