SUNDAY, Sept. 30, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Blocking a single protein might stop the age-related decline of the immune system that reduces people's ability to benefit from vaccinations and leaves them vulnerable to infectious diseases and cancer, a preliminary new study says.
Levels of the protein, called DUSP6, steadily rise as people age and interfere with the ability of an important class of immune cells to respond to invading germs or vaccines designed to protect against those harmful germs, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine found.
They also pinpointed a potential compound that may inhibit DUSP6 and turn back the clock on the immune system's decline and reinvigorate its response to vaccines.
The study was published online Sept. 30 in the journal Nature Medicine.
Although this research could possibly lead to a drug that counters age-related weakening of the immune system, it is still in the very early stages, the researchers emphasized.
"We are still far from application in the clinic. We need to keep tweaking the compound and testing it in mice to make absolutely sure it's safe enough to try in humans," study senior author Dr. Jorg Goronzy, professor of rheumatology and immunology, said in a Stanford news release. "But improving vaccine responses to overcome age-related immune defects represents a unique opportunity to attain healthy aging."
Goronzy explained that a person's immune system begins to decline at around age 40.
"While 90 percent of young adults respond to most vaccines, after age 60 that response rate is down to around 40 percent to 45 percent," Goronzy said. "With some vaccines, it's as low as 20 percent."
Vaccine failure among seniors is a serious health problem. About 90 percent of influenza deaths occur in people over age 65, according to the news release.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about seniors and vaccinations.