The premise behind vaccines is simple: Doctors expose the body to a disarmed version or a piece of an infectious agent such as a polio virus. In response, the body makes antibodies that will "remember" the invader and wipe out an infection. But vaccines must also be packaged with an agent, called an adjuvant, which irritates the immune system so that it produces lots of antibodies. Most vaccines are paired with an adjuvant called alum, a bath of aluminum salts.
Now, researchers at Ribi Immunochem Research Inc. in Hamilton, Mont., have come up with a more effective broth for vaccines. Ribi's Detox adjuvant, a mix of stimulants made from bacteria, dramatically increased the antibody responses among a group of volunteers injected with malaria vaccine. Their antibody levels were an average of 10 times as high as a group that was injected with alum. The improvement could enhance a new generation of vaccines being developed for Lyme disease and herpes. It has been difficult to stimulate enough antibodies to protect the body against these illnesses.