The Human Immunome Program is one of two initiatives currently being pursued by the Human Vaccines Project (the Project). The other initiative, called the Rules of Immunogenicity Program, aims to elucidate the key principles of human immunology to understand how to generate life-long protective immunity.
The ultimate mission is to accelerate development of “next-generation” vaccines capable of preventing the spread of diseases on a global scale.
“The Human Vaccines Project is seeking to break down the silos of traditional disease research and focus on decoding the human immune system to understand the components and rules of how the body fights disease,” said the Project’s President and CEO Wayne C. Koff, Ph.D.
“Scientists such as Dr. Crowe are advancing our understanding of human immunology in ways not even feasible a few years ago, and offer the possibility of making immune-driven breakthroughs across diseases,” Koff said.
It’s a tall order. Efforts to develop vaccines against major disease killers like HIV and malaria so far have been largely unsuccessful. The current pace of vaccine development can’t keep up with emerging threats like Ebola or Zika. And vaccines requiring multiple injections don’t work well in places they’re needed most.
“In Africa people may have to travel for a day or more to get to a doctor. They may not be able to get to a doctor, let alone come back for boosters,” explained Andrea Pruijssers, Ph.D., project manager at the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.
Pruijssers is a virologist from the Netherlands with a Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Georgia. As the Coordinating Center’s project manager, her role is to coordinate operationally and assist participating hubs and institutions with what they need for the research to move forward, she said.
In addition to Illumina’s sequencing acumen and the bioinformatics and data management capabilities of the Project, partners in the effort include the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and the Scripps Research Institute.
The Project is funding the Human Immunome Program with contributions from partners and philanthropists.
The cost of acquiring the genetic repertoire from each individual’s white blood cells can exceed $100,000 due to the large amount of sequencing required. Over $100 million may be needed to cover the first 1,000 individuals enrolled in the study. Efforts are underway to make the work faster and cheaper.
Donors will be tracked over 10 years to see how their immunome changes as they age and develop disease. DNA sequences from immune cells will be correlated with genetic readouts from the “microbiome,” microbes that live on or inside the body and which are known to influence immunity.
Genetic information also will be tracked against donor’s personal and family health histories, the vaccinations they’ve received and medications they’ve taken and other demographic and personal health information.
By understanding the “rules” of immunity better, scientists believe vaccines one day might be given as a one-time shot, providing lifelong protection against a host of infectious diseases for anyone of any age anywhere in the world. “We just need more information,” Pruijssers said.