Mysteries of immune system to be unraveled by new center
Over the past few flu seasons, hundreds of people have trooped in to the medical center to get vaccinated, and then some. They’re getting blood draws both before and after their shot, because they’re participating in an ambitious clinical study. But this is bigger than a single study, however ambitious.The study’s immediate goal is to tease out the ways in which the immune systems of people of different ages respond, or fail to respond, to specific influenza strains; that, in turn, could lead to scientists designing tailored vaccines that pack an additional punch for those whose immune systems need it.
But the flu-vaccine trial is part of a much more far-reaching effort to create the first-ever method capable of characterizing the human immune system under normal conditions — and thus knowing the multitude of minute changes that occur when we get sick, or successfully vaccinated, or old.
A key part of this endeavor is the Human Immune Monitoring Center
, which allows researchers to analyze blood samples — such as those collected from the flu study participants — in exquisite detail. The center will play a crucial role in helping Stanford’s researchers understand the intricacies of the human immune system, said Mark Davis, PhD, director of the Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection. To fund this larger endeavor, Davis has received close to $40 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as the project’s principal investigator.
“What we need is a scorecard: a routine, standardized, easily interpreted blood test you take before you get sick — analogous to the ones you get for cholesterol or glucose levels,” said Davis, the Bert and Marion Avery Family Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology: “This would let you and your doctor know not only that right this minute what you’ve got is an allergy, not an infection, but also how well your immune system is functioning in general — and, if it’s malfunctioning, how, and with what consequences.”From the standpoint of the practicing clinician, the immune system remains a black box, added C. Garrison Fathman, MD, the ITI institute associate director and professor of immunology and rheumatology. “If a patient were to ask me, ‘How’s my immune system doing today?’ I would have no idea how to answer that, and I’m an immunologist. None of us can answer that. Right now we’re still doing the same tests I did when I was a medical student in the late 1960s.”
In the last few decades a lot has been learned about the basic mechanisms of immune response — a super-smart system of sensors, cells and secretions that has evolved to guard us from invasion by pathogens or betrayal by our own tumor-prone tissues. We now know that cancer, autoimmune disease, infection, even chronic conditions such as heart disease once not recognized to have any immune connection — all involve a failure of some aspect of our immune defenses.
Still, the immune system remains a giant puzzle. Its complexity is overwhelming, comprising at least 15 different interacting cell types that spew dozens of different molecules into the blood in order to communicate with one another and to do battle. Within each of those cells sit tens of thousands of genes whose activity may be altered (or not) by age, exercise, infection, vaccination status, diet, stress, you name it.
Immunologists could be at the dawn of a new era, in which they determine what the differing levels of molecules and cells circulating in different people’s blood tell us about how the immune system works — and how to make it work better. The basis for these scientists’ hopes is the research enabled by the marriage between new or improved analytic instrumentation (much of it pioneered at Stanford) and the latest computing technology.
At the center of this effort sit a couple of clusters of world-class widgetry collectively called the Human Immune Monitoring Center at Stanford.