Alum interaction with dendritic cell membrane lipids is essential for its adjuvanticity

Nat Med. 2011 Apr;17(4):479-87. doi: 10.1038/nm.2306. Epub 2011 Mar 13.


As an approved vaccine adjuvant for use in humans, alum has vast health implications, but, as it is a crystal, questions remain regarding its mechanism. Furthermore, little is known about the target cells, receptors, and signaling pathways engaged by alum. Here we report that, independent of inflammasome and membrane proteins, alum binds dendritic cell (DC) plasma membrane lipids with substantial force. Subsequent lipid sorting activates an abortive phagocytic response that leads to antigen uptake. Such activated DCs, without further association with alum, show high affinity and stable binding with CD4(+) T cells via the adhesion molecules intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) and lymphocyte function-associated antigen-1 (LFA-1). We propose that alum triggers DC responses by altering membrane lipid structures. This study therefore suggests an unexpected mechanism for how this crystalline structure interacts with the immune system and how the DC plasma membrane may behave as a general sensor for solid structures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / administration & dosage*
  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / pharmacokinetics
  • Alum Compounds / administration & dosage*
  • Alum Compounds / pharmacokinetics
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Cell Line
  • Dendritic Cells / drug effects
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology*
  • Dendritic Cells / metabolism*
  • Dendritic Cells / ultrastructure
  • Enzyme Activation / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / metabolism
  • Membrane Lipids / immunology*
  • Membrane Lipids / metabolism*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Models, Immunological
  • Phagocytosis / drug effects
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • Syk Kinase
  • Vaccines / administration & dosage


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Alum Compounds
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • Membrane Lipids
  • Vaccines
  • aluminum sulfate
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • SYK protein, human
  • Syk Kinase