Mother’s milk – our first vaccination

02 May, 2013

A mother’s antibodies passed on to her baby may be the main reason childhood vaccinations have been so successful and why science has battled so long, and with little success, to tackle chronic infections and tumours in adults, according to a leading immunologist.

Laureate Professor Rolf Zinkernagel, who completed his Nobel Prize winning research at The John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at The Australian National University, says high levels of antibodies passed on to children by their mothers may help with the effectiveness of childhood vaccines.

"Protection against infections seems to depend on pre-existing antibodies at the time of infection. So if we don’t have any naturally occurring antibodies our immune system struggles to fight the infection. This has serious implications for how we think about old vaccines and how we apply ourselves to discovering new ones," Professor Zinkernagel said.

Professor Zinkernagel is joined in the JCSMR Director’s 'Health through Discovery' Public Lecture Series by his colleague Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their immunological studies.

Despite there being a great deal of scientific knowledge available to the public, there is often an incorrect bias on some advances over others and little to guide people to the 'right' knowledge base. Professor Doherty cites the climate change debate as a good example.

"We may be barraged with deliberate misinformation with relation to areas like human-caused climate change. Who is telling the truth, and how do we separate the informed and sincere observer from the snake oil salesman?" he said.

Professor Doherty says the media’s lack of interest and understanding of science is contributing to an ill-informed community.

"The real problem with science communication is that our society newspapers are going backwards. There is no advertising money in science; there is advertising money in anti-science, such as in health foods and natural medicines. Where can people get real information?" he said.