Gene vaccines are a new approach to immunization and immunotherapy in which, rather than a live or inactivated organism (or a subunit thereof), one or more genes that encode proteins of the pathogen are delivered. The goal of this approach is to generate immunity against diseases for which traditional vaccines and treatments have not worked, to improve vaccines, and to treat chronic diseases. Gene vaccines make use of advances in immunology and molecular biology to more specifically tailor immune responses (cellular or humoral, or both) against selected antigens. They are still under development in research and clinical trials.
The mechanisms for inducing cellular (as opposed to humoral) responses against a particular antigen have been elucidated. Gene vaccines provide a means to generate specific cellular responses while still generating antibodies, if desired. In addition, by delivering only the genes that encode the particular proteins against which a protective or therapeutic immune response is desired, the potential limitations and risks of certain other approaches can be avoided.
This article describes the rationale for, immunologic mechanisms involved in, and design of gene vaccines under development. Preclinical and clinical studies of these vaccines are discussed for various clinical applications, focusing on infectious diseases.