Human Immune System Goes Under the Microscope

Scientists receive large funds to study the human immune system's response to disease.

A nationwide research initiative has been launched to define changes in the human immune system’s response to infection and vaccination using human rather than animal models. The research could lead to better vaccines and other treatments for immune diseases.

Baylor Research Institute (BRI), along with five other U.S.-based Human Immune Phenotyping Centers, will receive a total of $100 million over five years to conduct the research.

Funding is provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Investigators will analyze samples from well-characterized groups, such as children, the elderly, and people with autoimmune diseases — such as lupus. These groups represent diverse populations with respect to age, genetics, gender and ethnicity. The research teams will examine immune system elements of these populations before and after exposure to naturally acquired infections or vaccines or vaccine components. The profile that will emerge of the body’s response will be based on the most sophisticated and comprehensive tests available.

“Being able to track activity in the immune system and note the differences in the immune system’s response before, during, and after exposure to infection or vaccination will help us develop safer and more effective therapeutics and vaccines,” Michael Ramsay, M.D., president, Baylor Research Institute, said in a press release. “Our research will also add to the body of knowledge on the immune system, and that could lead to other exciting discoveries.”

The researchers’ studies will focus on immune responses to vaccines against specific viruses and bacteria such as influenza, neumococcus and West Nile virus. They will take advantage of technological developments and advances in creating databases to establish mathematical models to identify and analyze complex changes in immune profiles.

BRI’s efforts, along with the other research centers, will help establish a centralized infrastructure to collect, characterize, and store human samples and analyze the large data sets that will be generated. Eventually, the centers will gather the information from this effort into a centralized Web-based database that will be available to the scientific community to promote and support human immunology research.

“Because of this research, we will no longer only have to rely on animal models to define the principles of human immune regulation, which is not always effective,” says Dr. Ramsay. “The knowledge gained also will improve our understanding of the range of vaccine responses in particular subpopulations, including newborns, young children, the elderly, patients taking immunosuppressive medications and those with underlying diseases of the immune system, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases.”

Besides BRI, other research centers participating in the program include: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Emory University in Atlanta, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Stanford University and Yale University.

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