Most children in the United States receive 35 vaccination shots by their fifth birthday. (Cue the crying.) That may sound like a lot, but public health experts believe we need even more—a lot more. The current roster of routine childhood vaccines in the United States protects against 16 infectious diseases, and the World Health Organization estimates that overall, vaccines save 2.5 million lives each year. Yet an even larger number of people die annually from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS combined.
The good news is that there are a historic number of experimental vaccines in the pipeline—270 and counting—aimed at preventing these 3 global killers, along with 51 other infectious diseases. The new Vaccine Center at NYU Langone Health, launched this year by Mark J. Mulligan, MD, a nationally renowned infectious disease investigator recently recruited from Emory University, will build on this extraordinary momentum through a combination of basic research and clinical trials.
“Vaccine research is of the highest importance to humankind,” says Dr. Mulligan, the Jeffrey P. Bergstein Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology. “We still lack vaccines for many long-standing diseases, and new threats like Zika and Ebola continue to emerge. The center’s mission is to discover new vaccines to protect and restore human health.”
Dr. Mulligan’s own lab will focus on developing a universal influenza vaccine, a national priority to contain one of the deadliest infectious diseases in the United States, accounting for 80,000 deaths last season alone. The Holy Grail, he says, is a single shot, perhaps with a booster every 5 to 10 years, that inoculates against all influenza strains and eliminates the annual hit-or-miss scramble to predict dominant strains for each flu season.
The center will also investigate therapeutic vaccines—like the one Nathaniel R. Landau, PhD, professor of microbiology, is developing against HIV—that train the body’s immune system to fight existing infections. It’s a fast-growing strategy now being explored to treat everything from Alzheimer’s disease to diabetes, but cancer tops the list: currently nearly half of the vaccines in clinical trials target cancer—a trend that Dr. Mulligan, professor of medicine and microbiology, believes will only grow. “Cancer vaccines are an exciting field, reinvigorated in the new era of immunotherapy, and we will recruit researchers and collaborate with investigators and clinicians to develop them,” says Dr. Mulligan.