Vaccine adjuvants based on the structure of lipid A, such as monophosphoryl lipid A (MLA), have proven to be safe and effective in inducing immune responses to heterologous proteins in animal and human vaccines. Recent work on the development of a recombinant vaccine for leishmaniasis has demonstrated that a clinical grade MLA formulation - MPL(R) adjuvant - is essential in the development of a protective response. Preliminary evidence suggests that MLA and a chemically distinct family of lipid A mimetics - the aminoalkyl glucosaminide 4-phosphates - act on Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4). As TLR4 agonists, they have potent immunomodulatory effects when used both as vaccine adjuvants and as stand-alone products. Novel approaches to vaccine development could benefit from taking full advantage of the effects of these compounds on innate and adaptive responses.