Uniting immunology and vaccine expertise will explore how to boost mRNA vaccine response in older people

Uniting immunology and vaccine expertise will explore how to boost mRNA vaccine response in older people

Uniting immunology and vaccine expertise will explore how to boost mRNA vaccine response in older people

Key points:

  • The Babraham Institute and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, New Zealand, have received a BBSRC International Partnering Award.
  • The project will combine the Immunology programme’s expertise in germinal centres and antibody secreting cells with the mRNA vaccine development pipeline for making and testing new mRNA vaccines led by Dr Lisa Connor’s team at the Malaghan Institute.
  • Together, the scientists aim to develop and test mRNA vaccines designed to counteract the age-related decline in the quality of the immune response.

Research connections between immunologists at the Babraham Institute and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, in Wellington, New Zealand have been strengthened by the award of an International Partnering Award from the BBSRC, part of UKRI. This new funding unites Institute expertise in the effects of age on the immune system from the Linterman lab and antibody secreting cells from the Turner lab with the Malaghan Institute’s novel vaccine development platform and expertise in full-spectrum flow cytometry. The aims of the collaborative project are to investigate the germinal centre response to mRNA vaccination and how this changes with age, then to use this knowledge to test how mRNA vaccines might be adapted in order to be more effective for older people.

“Having visited the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research many times over the years it is fantastic to combine our expertise on this project to pursue important questions about how to design the best mRNA vaccines for people of all ages.” said Dr Michelle Linterman, group leader in the Institute’s Immunology programme. “We’re looking forward to working together to promote health across the lifespan”

The International Partnering Award will build on the Linterman lab’s previous work into understanding the germinal centre response after vaccination and characterising why this response is diminished in older bodies. The germinal centre is a specialised immune hub that forms in secondary lymphoid tissues such as the spleen and lymph nodes after an infection or a vaccination. The interactions between different cell types in the germinal centre are vital to the production of high-affinity antibodies and the development of longer-lasting immunity.

The Linterman lab’s research has contributed several critical insights into the cellular changes that occur in the germinal centre with age and result in a diminished immune response. This work, performed using aged mice and donated human samples, has confirmed the primary drivers for this decline and identified potential mechanisms to counteract it.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Malaghan Institute developed a comprehensive and rapid RNA technology platform for creating mRNA vaccines, covering all aspects of mRNA vaccine development and delivery for clinical trials. The combination of these two areas of expertise will allow the international team of researchers to explore the modification of mRNA vaccines and see whether these are likely to provide better protection for older people by encoding components that target the decline in germinal centre quality.

Dr Theresa Pankhurst and Dr Michelle Linterman
Dr Theresa Pankhurst and Dr Michelle Linterman at the Babraham Institute

Dr Theresa Pankhurst, Linterman lab postdoctoral researcher and holder of the inaugural Te Urungi Churchill By-Fellowship from the Malaghan Institute, will carry out part of the work during her two-year secondment in the Linterman lab. Speaking about the project Theresa said: “After having worked on New Zealand’s COVID vaccine efforts it’s incredible to be here with Michelle and her team to work with them to learn more about the body’s response to vaccination, and especially how that changes with age. I’m really excited to be working with colleagues across the Babraham Institute and the Malaghan Institute on this project and to see what we can achieve by combining our different strengths.”

The long-term partnership between the two institutes aims to lead to the generation and use of novel vaccines as well as the development of advanced flow cytometry techniques to allow researchers to better understand immunity over the lifespan.

An additional dimension of the partnering award is that it supports skills exchange between technical specialists from the Flow Cytometry facility of the Babraham Institute and that of the Malaghan Institute. This exchange will accelerate the facility’s growing expertise in spectral flow cytometry, an emerging aspect of the facility’s capabilities and a field where the Malaghan Institute’s Hugh Green Cytometry Centre is a recognised leader.

“This partnership presents such an exciting opportunity for several areas across each of our institutes to benefit” summed up Dr Linterman.  “I’m delighted that we can combine not just our expertise but our focus on improving health outcomes to secure better health across the diverse sectors of our society.”


Press contact Honor Pollard, Communications Officer, honor.pollard@babraham.ac.uk

Image description: Header image - Google Earth capture of the UK and New Zealand

In text image - Dr Michelle Linterman and Dr Teresa Pankhurst sat outside the Babraham Institute science building.

About the Babraham Institute

The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through Institute Strategic Programme Grants and an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £451 million in world-class bioscience in 2019-20. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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