To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Dr. Smita Gopinath explained research on vaginal immunity

Injecting mice with herpes has led Dr. Smita Gopinath to potentially new information on the future of vaccines. In a talk at Brandeis on Tuesday, Feb. 1, Gopinath explained her fascination with the “vaginal microbiome” and the way her years-long work at Harvard’s Gopinath Lab has led her to potentially uncover new ways to protect against the severity of sexually transmitted viruses. 

Gopinath said that the primary goal of her work is to look at direct infections and how vaginal bacteria affects various, ”hosts’ immunes responses to sexually transmitted viruses like herpes.” She explained that while herpes is typically uncomfortable in humans, it is lethal in mice. By testing ways to lessen the severity of symptoms in mice, Gopinath hopes to find ways to reduce the severity of flare-ups in humans.

Gopinath is studying many types of cells, neurons and other bodily contents for her work, listing about a dozen different components in her lecture. However, she focused on a few, particularly immune system cells and vaginal bacteria. One main area of fascination was on lactobacilli, “the dominant vaginal resident bacteria,” Gopinath explained. Lactobacilli becomes present at menstruation and its dominance is “strongly correlated” with “positive health outcomes,” according to Gopinath. She hopes to understand more about how this bacteria fits into the overall immune response, and what this means when it comes to protection against infections. She had more data researching immune system cells, specifically CD8+ T cells. These immune system cells play an important role in her studies on mice, she explained.  

One of the focuses of her work is on the “prime and pull vaccine” made of vaginal cells and components. This vaccine involves priming a subject by injecting them with a “protein vaccine,” which will cause the body to produce more T cells, a crucial part of the immune system, she said. After the prime, comes the pull. Once the new T cells are made, you “apply the vaginal CD8+ T cells,” which attracts the newly created immune system responses. Gopinath explained that this application was like a “supporting cue” for the immune system. She said this led to a “doubling” of T cells in the vagina in her experiments, and resulted in protecting against herpes. Gopinath doesn’t “know exactly what CD8+ T cells do,” but she has concluded that they are an important piece to this puzzle, based on her lab results. 

Gopinath is also interested in the way that vaginal issues can affect digestion. In her talk, she said that research showed a link between herpes and constipation. She explained that there is a link between a herpes inflection and the breaking down of enteric neurons—neurons in the digestive system that help regulate many things, including bowel movement. However, her research shows that neomycin can protect against this loss of neurons and in turn, keep the digestive system functioning normally, she said. Gopinath was sure to warn that “this needs further study,” but that “this [phenomenon] is what early results are showing.” With those results, Gopinath has learned that “you can engineer protection.”

Many times throughout her lecture, Gopinath mentioned that all of her work was still in the research phase, though she did cite that “prime and pull” vaccines have positive reviews from other scientists. The Gopinath Lab’s work centers around The Red Queen Hypothesis, according to their lab page, the main interest of their work is to examine the relationship and interaction between commensal microbiota, pathogens and host immune response. Specifically looking at the place they meet, the mucosa, according to the lab page. More information about her research and findings can be found on the Gopinath Lab website.

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