New Studies Expand Understanding of the Human Immune System


A pair of studies recently conducted as part of the Human Vaccines Project are giving new insight into the human immune system and how researchers can develop better vaccines.

At the recent World Vaccine and Immunotherapy Congress, scientists from the Human Vaccines Project presented 2 new studies that offer new insights into the human immune system and how researchers can develop new and better vaccines.

The Human Vaccines Project formed in 2014 as a coordinated effort between universities, companies, and nonprofits to accelerate the development of vaccines and immunotherapies against major global infectious diseases and cancers by decoding the human immune system. Researchers from 2 of the Project’s clinical studies recently presented high-level outcomes of their research at the conference.

Each of the studies aimed to improve understanding of how the components and mechanisms of the human immune system work to prevent and control disease. The first program, called the Human Immunome Program, was led by Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Vaccine Center director James E. Crowe, Jr., MD. His team sequenced millions of recombined and expressed B and T cell genes from cord blood samples and healthy adults to identify common elements of the human immune system not previously discovered. Their goal was to find immune system components shared by all and apply their findings toward new and better vaccines.

"We are studying the immune systems of healthy individuals to identify common elements, which could be important for facilitating new and improved vaccines," explained Dr. Crowe in a recent press release. "We also plan to expand these studies to complete the catalog across different demographics and geographies and compare healthy subjects with individuals with immune-mediated diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and Alzheimer's, which could also reveal novel diagnostic markers."

Findings from the second study were presented by Manish Sadarangani, MD, PhD, director of the Vaccine Evaluation Center of the University of British Columbia and BC Children's Hospital Research Institute, and Richard Scheuermann, PhD, director of the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California. In conjunction with the Rules of Immunogenicity Program—aimed at revealing the rules that the human immune system follows to prevent and control disease—the study examined why some individuals respond well to a single dose of Hepatitis B vaccine, while others require as many as 3 doses to generate protective immunity. The researchers differentiated between 3 responders and 3 non-responders by analyzing the activation of marker genes in subsets of innate immune cells, and predicted who generated a detectable serum antibody response after just 1 dose of the vaccine.

"These preliminary data points toward strategies to understand why some people respond better to vaccines than others," said Dr. Sadarangani. "We plan to expand this trial to include populations of all ages across all resource settings to provide the most comprehensive analysis of any vaccine ever undertaken."

Since the middle of the 20th century, the development of vaccines has helped to make rare a number of diseases that were once common and often fatal. For example, smallpox, which once caused frequent and deadly outbreaks, has not caused any outbreaks in the United States since 1949 and was declared eradicated by the World Health Assembly in 1980. The immunization schedule recommended today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protects against more than a dozen diseases, including polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, rotavirus, and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). Arguably, the introduction of vaccines has been the greatest catalyst behind the decline of deaths in children in the United States. To this day, the country continues to experience low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases; however, the CDC has stated that incidence of these diseases has not disappeared completely and the declining vaccination rates seen in recent years can impact herd immunity and cause a resurgence of many of these diseases. Indeed, we have already seen a resurgence in mumps and measles across the country in the past several years.

However, vaccines remain one of the strongest tools in the health care arsenal against potentially-deadly diseases and with the emergence of new pathogens such as the Zika virus, the need for continued research into human immunity and the development of new vaccines is imperative.

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