Let There Be Light! Lasers May Make Your Flu Vaccine More Effective

Nobody likes to get stuck with a needle, but maybe lasers beforehand might take away some of the sting

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Mike Kemp / © Rubberball 2009

Researchers from Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center in the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Division of Infectious Diseases report that pre-treating the site of a flu vaccine jab with an infrared laser may boost the body’s immune response against influenza.

The study involved mice, but the results hold promise for people, say the scientific team, who have also tested the idea in a small number of people. In their study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers treated mice with a one-minute dose of near-infrared laser light before inoculating them with the H1N1 flu vaccine and found that the animals showed stronger immune system activity and survived longer after being infected with potentially lethal doses of flu than the animals who didn’t receive the light treatment. The lasers boosted the vaccine’s effectiveness by up to 100-fold by activating dendritic cells, which are responsible for recognizing pathogens like viruses and alerting the immune system to defend against them.

(MORE: How To Find The Right Flu Vaccine)

Many vaccines against different infectious diseases currently use chemicals or biological agents to get the same immune-boosting effect — it’s a way to prime the immune system to respond to the incoming influenza antigens and generate antibodies against them. However, some people develop  reactions such as soreness or inflammation to these additives, so many flu shots don’t contain them, which lowers their effectiveness. It’s possible, say the study authors, that laser light could work as a replacement to such adjuvants — without the side effects.

“We discovered that low-power near-infrared laser light effectively and reproducibly increases vaccine efficacy as well as currently approved adjuvants and is effective for influenza vaccination,” said senior author Dr. Mark Poznansky, the director of the MGH Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center in a statement.

So far the researchers have only looked at the effect of lasers in tandem with the flu vaccine, but they believe the approach could also be used to enhance the effectiveness of other vaccines such as those against malaria and polio.