Coronavirus: The Irishman researching how vaccines can be more effective in older people

Research Lives: Dr David Dowling, principal investigator, Adjuvant Discovery & Development Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital; instructor in paediatrics, Harvard Medical School

You want to make vaccines for Covid-19 (Coronavirus) more effective in older people, can you explain?
We know that, in general, older people are more susceptible to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus Sars-CoV-2. We also know that as you get older, your immune system can change, and you may not respond as well to vaccines as when you were younger. So my research is looking at how we can formulate the new, emerging vaccines against Covid-19 so that they work well in older people.

How are you doing that?
Using blood samples, we are looking at how older people's immune systems respond to an experimental vaccine against the 2003 Sars virus and to the new vaccines being developed for Sars-CoV-2.

We are also researching how adding substances called adjuvants to vaccine formulations can make the older person’s immune response stronger. Doing that should mean a lower dose of the vaccine would be effective for older people, that would speed up the vaccine production process and bring down the cost of it.

What are your thoughts on the Covid-19 pandemic more generally?
It will be a while before we have available vaccines, and we have to do what we can now to lessen the spread and impact of the virus, while thinking strategically about how we might cope with it becoming seasonal in the future.


What other vaccines are you working on?
We are looking to develop a vaccine to protect people with opioid use disorder. The goal is that the vaccine would prevent people from being able to take a lethal dose of opioids, that would be a huge achievement. To do this, we are looking at the immune systems of people who have opioid use disorder and designing the vaccine accordingly.

How did you become interested in immunology as a field of research?
I grew up in Bray (Co Wicklow) as part of a big family, and I got the opportunity to go to college through Dublin City University's (DCU) access programme. I studied biotechnology and became fascinated by the innate immune system. I went to work in Wyeth (now Pfizer) in Clondalkin (Dublin) before deciding to do a PhD in DCU with Dr Sandra O'Neill, where I looked at how parasitic infections prompt immune responses.

What is your advice to young people with an interest in science?
Be aspirational, think about what you could do in the future and develop a strategy. I wanted to apply science to solve problems and now I am working at the epicentre of two huge epidemics, the opioid crisis and Covid-19.

And finally, how do you take a break from the research?
Soccer is one of my passions, and I am often to be found watching a match on the TV early on a Saturday morning because of the time difference here in Boston. I also get into the lab early and get home early, then my phone goes into a box and I focus on the family.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation