Next-gen vaccines set to maintain immunity as the years advance

Vaccine potency drops in the elderly and little is known about why this happens. Now European scientists are on a mission to understand waning immunity and to develop strategies that make vaccines work effectively in all age groups.

Vaccines are much less effective in the elderly than they are in the young, making people far more susceptible to serious infection as they age – a fact that became widely apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why vaccine potency wanes is poorly understood and scientists are on a quest to develop a new generation of vaccines and vaccination strategies that offer strong protection throughout our lives.

Scientists need to grasp why a person’s natural fightback to an invading microorganism becomes blunted with age in a process known as immunosenescence.

‘We know the immune system changes with age, and that this has huge consequences on health and age-related deterioration,’ said Debbie Van Baarle, professor of immunology of vaccinations at the University Medical Centre Groningen and the Centre for Infectious Disease Control in the Netherlands. ‘But the extent and precise nature of these changes, and what we can learn to improve vaccines is largely unknown.’

‘With more information, we could make vaccines a better fit for every patient, at every stage of life.’


The human immune system is immensely complex, with a raft of specialist molecules and cells working in concert to fight infection and return the body to a state of equilibrium (known as homeostasis) after a bout of ill-health. How this interplay of cells and molecules changes with age underpins the work of immunosenescence researchers.

Prof Van Baarle is scientific lead of VITAL, an Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) project which provides evidence-based knowledge to develop targeted and efficient vaccination strategies for older adults. Researchers hope to understand what factors hamper people’s immune responses as they age.

‘If we discover that a certain part of the immune system doesn’t respond so well to vaccines after a certain age, then we’ll need to ask questions around this,’ said Prof Van Baarle.

‘For instance, should we be priming the immune system at an earlier age, when it is still fit?’ she said. ‘Should we be using different vaccine technology for older people or different vaccine adjuvants (substances added to a vaccine to evoke an immune response) for people in a certain age group?’

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