GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Immunology and Microbiology



First Thesis Advisor

Shan Lu, MD, PhD


Vaccination, DNA Vaccines, Innate Immunity, Antigens


Dissertations, UMMS; Vaccination; Vaccines, DNA; Immunity, Innate; Antigens


A major advantage of DNA vaccination is the ability to induce both humoral and cellular immune responses. DNA vaccines are currently used in veterinary medicine, but their tendency to display low immunogenicity in humans has hindered their usage, despite excellent tolerability and safety profiles. Various approaches have been used to improve the immunogenicity of DNA vaccines. Recent human study data re-established the value of DNA vaccines, especially in priming high-level antigen-specific antibody responses. Data suggests that innate immune responses to the DNA vaccine plasmid itself contribute to the immunogenicity of DNA vaccines, however the underlying mechanisms responsible remain unclear. In this dissertation, we investigate the role of innate immunity in shaping antigen-specific adaptive immune responses following DNA vaccination.

The current belief is that the cytosolic DNA sensing pathways govern DNA vaccine immunogenicity. To date, only the type I interferon inducing STING/TBK1 regulatory pathway has been identified as required for DNA vaccine immunogenicity. Surprisingly, neither the upstream receptor nor the downstream signaling molecules in this pathway have been characterized. I therefore investigated a candidate cytosolic DNA receptor, as well as the downstream transcription factors required for generation of antigen-specific immune responses. Additionally, the effects of pro-inflammatory signaling on DNA vaccine immunogenicity have yet to be comprehensively studied. Previous studies have only provided indirect evidence for the role of inflammatory v signaling in DNA vaccination. As such, I also investigated the role of the DNA sensing AIM2 inflammasome in DNA vaccination. My data indicates that AIM2 is a key modulator in DNA vaccination via a previously unrecognized connection to type I interferon. Importantly, this marks the first time a DNA vaccine sensor has been identified.

Of note, this dissertation represents a departure from many published works in the field. Whereas previous studies have mostly utilized model antigens and only focused on the adaptive immune responses generated, I analyzed the effects on innate immunity as well. Using various innate gene knockout murine models, I quantified antigen-specific humoral and T cell responses, as well as serum cytokine and chemokines following immunization with a clinically relevant DNA vaccine. Overall, this data provides a basis for understanding the mechanisms of DNA vaccination, allowing for the design of more effective vaccines.



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