Encouraging Signs from Early Heart Disease Vaccine Research
Human trials of the anti-inflammation vaccine are still years away, however.
Heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S., and that makes the idea of a vaccine especially exciting. That’s why encouraging progress in animal studies of a heart disease vaccine is being greeted with optimism, even though the research is in its early stages.
Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, building off previous work done at Wayne State University, used an experimental vaccine on mice. The vaccinated mice had about 40 percent less arterial plaque than mice that didn’t receive the vaccine.
Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, co-section head of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, called the research “elegant and tremendously exciting.”
“This lays the groundwork for some day being able to prevent or even eradicate heart disease by giving a vaccine,” says Dr. Hazen, also chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Cellular & Molecular Medicine.
The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, also drew praise from Eric Topol, MD, professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute. “If successful, the potential development of a vaccine to prevent atherosclerosis would be a monumental advance in medicine,” he says.
A different kind of vaccine
The focus of this research is to target inflammation in the blood vessels. The buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries, which leads to heart disease, is an inflammatory response. The La Jolla Institute’s Klaus Ley, MD, the lead author of the study, explains that this experimental vaccine works differently than those used to help prevent the flu and other illnesses.
“A flu vaccine’s purpose is to teach your immune system to launch an attack if it encounters the virus,” he says. “Our vaccine works more like the desensitization process used in allergy shots. Allergy shots are designed to teach the individual’s immune system to tolerate the allergen. Our vaccine would work on the same principle. Only in this case, we’d be teaching the immune system to tolerate certain molecules of our own bodies that it mistakenly attacks, which causes inflammation.”
Dr. Ley has identified immune cells that trigger the inflammatory attack on the artery wall. He has been working with several internationally recognized vaccine experts. Though more animal studies are planned for the immediate future, Dr. Ley says human trials of the heart disease vaccine could begin in as little as three years. However, that timetable could be pushed back depending on the rate of progress in animal studies.
Researchers also note that even if a human vaccine proves successful, it will still be important for people to engage in heart-healthy behaviors, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, no smoking and moderate alcohol consumption (if at all).