Systematic identification of small molecule adjuvants

Darren R. Flower

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Adjuvants potentiate immune responses, reducing the amount and dosing frequency of antigen required for inducing protective immunity. Adjuvants are of special importance when considering subunit, epitope-based or more unusual vaccine formulations lacking significant innate immunogenicity. While numerous adjuvants are known, only a few are licensed for human use; principally alum, and squalene-based oil-in-water adjuvants. Alum, the most commonly used, is suboptimal. There are many varieties of adjuvant: proteins, oligonucleotides, drug-like small molecules and liposome-based delivery systems with intrinsic adjuvant activity being perhaps the most prominent. Areas covered: This article focuses on small molecules acting as adjuvants, with the author reviewing their current status while highlighting their potential for systematic discovery and rational optimisation. Known small molecule adjuvants (SMAs) can be synthetically complex natural products, small oligonucleotides or drug-like synthetic molecules. The author provides examples of each class, discussing adjuvant mechanisms relevant to SMAs, and exploring the high-throughput discovery of SMAs. Expert opinion: SMAs, particularly synthetic drug-like adjuvants, are amenable to the plethora of drug-discovery techniques able to optimise the properties of biologically active small molecules. These range from laborious synthetic modifications to modern, rational, effort-efficient computational approaches, such as QSAR and structure-based drug design. In principal, any property or characteristic can thus be designed in or out of compounds, allowing us to tailor SMAs to specific biological functions, such as targeting specific cells or pathways, in turn affording the power to tailor SMAs to better address different diseases.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)807-817
Number of pages11
JournalExpert Opinion on Drug Discovery
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012


  • adjuvants
  • high-throughput screening
  • virtual screening
  • vaccines


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