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Scientists Identify Genes That May Help Predict a Person’s Immune Response to the Flu Vaccine

Researchers at the Human Immunology Project Consortium and Center for Human Immunology discover differences in gene expression patterns upon flu vaccination in younger and older adults.

By
Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup
Monday, August 28, 2017

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Viral influenza infection, commonly called “the flu,” is a global public health issue, infecting millions of people each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. Doctors in many countries help combat the annual flu through administering vaccines. However, vaccines are often only partially effective because their efficacy largely depends on factors like age, geography and individual gene expression.

Immunologists at the Human Immunology Project Consortium and Center for Human Immunology investigated influenza vaccination responses in six large groups of individuals in the United States across five consecutive vaccination seasons from 2008 to 2013.

The researchers collected blood samples from the participants to characterize immune response and gene expression in four types of immune cells. Specifically, vaccine responses were quantified for each group and the participants were stratified into “low,” “moderate,” and “high” responder classes based on the strength of their immune responses to their vaccines. The researchers then analyzed gene expression data for over 32,000 genes across the groups to characterize baseline gene modules, or coordinated changes in related gene sets, against the participants’ vaccination responses.

One of the study’s key findings showed that certain genes that were positively associated with higher vaccination responses in young individuals under age 35 were negatively associated with higher vaccination responses in older individuals over age 60. The authors state that this finding suggests better antibody responses in younger adults, which could possibly be related to factors like age differences in cellular structure and activation, or chronic inflammation in older individuals. They note, however, that these possibilities warrant further study.

Looking toward the goals of precision medicine, the authors explain that their discoveries offer the “possibility of modulating an individual’s immune state before vaccination to improve the resulting antibody response.”

The results are published in the journal Science Immunology.