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Can Your Immune Profile Predict How You’ll Respond to Flu Vaccination?

NIAID Now | August 25, 2017

NIAID-Funded Study Identifies Immune States that Predict Individual Responses to Flu Vaccines

Individual immune responses to seasonal influenza vaccines vary, with some people producing higher levels of protective antibodies against the flu virus than others. In a new study, researchers describe immune profiles measured prior to vaccination that may predict a person’s antibody response to the seasonal flu vaccine. Their findings also indicate that immune states that predict good vaccine responses in young adults may be associated with poorer responses in older people.  

The study, funded by NIAID and published August 25 in Science Immunology, sheds light on the biological mechanisms underlying immune responses to the flu vaccine and how these change with age. Such insights may help inform development of new candidate vaccines and vaccination strategies. In the future, reliable predictors of individual responses to vaccination could be used to provide information to health care providers, enabling them to modify vaccination strategies or counsel individuals on their flu risk.  

While earlier studies had investigated immune profiles that may predict vaccine responses, the current study is the largest to date and the first to validate the identified predictors in an independent group of people. The researchers analyzed data from more than 500 people collected at different geographical locations in the United States across five consecutive flu seasons. The data were generated by multiple research institutions that are members of the NIAID-funded Human Immunology Project Consortium (HIPC), a major collaborative effort producing large amounts of human immune profiling data, and by NIH’s Center for Human Immunology (CHI), a program of systems human immunology research involving scientists from many NIH institutes. 

The researchers analyzed data from four groups that each included both young (below age 35 years) and older (above age 60 years) adults to identify pre-vaccination predictors of antibody responses to the flu vaccine. They then used data from two additional groups of individuals, one comprising young adults and one comprising older adults, to validate the predictors. Among young adults, the researchers identified and validated nine genes and three “gene modules” (groups of genes with functional relationships, such as those that participate in the same cell-signaling pathway) linked to antibody responses to the flu vaccine. Among older adults, they were not able to validate specific predictors of antibody responses to the flu vaccine.  

The researchers next evaluated how the predictors identified in young adults behaved in older adults. Strikingly, they found an opposite effect in the two age groups. Immune profiles associated with a robust immune response to the flu vaccine in young adults were associated with a weak response in older people. Additional studies will be needed to better understand these differences, as well as to determine whether the observations made in this study are specific to seasonal flu vaccines or generalizable to other vaccines. 

To facilitate further research, all of the data used in this study have been made freely available online through ImmuneSpace, a web interface that facilitates data retrieval, exploration and comparison of data across HIPC and other immunology studies, as well as the ImmPort data repository. 

Reference: The HIPC-CHI Signatures Project Team and the HIPC-I Consortium. Multi-cohort analysis reveals baseline transcriptional predictors of influenza vaccination responses. Science Immunology DOI: 10.1126/sciimmunol.aal4656 (2017). 

Content last reviewed on August 25, 2017