By Emily Caldwell
COLUMBUS, Ohio – New research that reveals how maternal antibodies block an immune response to the measles virus is a first step toward improving current childhood vaccination practices, scientists say.
Maternal antibodies are passed to fetuses during pregnancy and to newborns in their mothers’ milk. The antibodies protect infants against disease in the first months of life, but that protection comes at a cost: Their presence also interferes with the generation of a natural immune response to vaccination. As a result, most babies receive measles immunizations at the age of 12 to 15 months, when maternal antibodies are gone.
Years of studies have advanced the theory that maternal antibodies shield the measles virus so that cells that generate an immune response can’t see the pathogen. If that were the case, little could be done to intervene.
But Ohio State University researchers have demonstrated an entirely different mechanism in an animal model, showing that maternal antibodies bind to a specific receptor that sends a message to stop activation of an immune response to vaccination. The scientists also determined that signals to the immune response can be manipulated, and they are already devising ways that vaccines could be designed to circumvent this natural process.
“In effect, we have found how maternal antibodies affect the off-switch in the immune response, and we have found a potential on-switch,” said Stefan Niewiesk, associate professor of veterinary biosciences at Ohio State University and senior author of the study.
The research is published in the online First Edition of the journal Blood.
Under current pediatric practices, children receive measles vaccinations at age 12 to 15 months, and again when they are 5 years old. Maternal antibodies can be active in babies for up to nine months; this schedule is designed to offer protection after the decline of maternal antibodies.
“The maternal antibodies are high at birth, and go down over time. By age 1 year, the maternal antibodies are gone. So this vaccine schedule works quite well if protection is not so urgent. But there is a window of opportunity for measles to come in and infect. So we would like to be able to immunize earlier,” said Niewiesk, also an investigator in Ohio State’s Center for Microbial Interface Biology.