Emory University's Bali Pulendran and his colleagues demonstrated in late 2008 that a systems biology methodology could be used to predict the immunogenicity of the yellow fever vaccine in humans. By integrating high-throughput technologies, informatics, and computational modeling, Pulendran's team set the stage for systems vaccinology — an approach that allows investigators to track the "dynamic changes in the expression of mRNA, microRNAs, and proteins during an immune response to a vaccine," he says.
Now equipped with $15.5 million in funding over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Pulendran and his collaborators at the Broad Institute, the University of California, San Diego, Georgia Tech, and the University of Colorado, among other institutions, plan to validate this integrative approach at Emory's new Center for Systems Vaccinology.
Pulendran's approach aims to strike down the principle that "the effectiveness of vaccination can only be ascertained after vaccinated individuals have been exposed to infection," according to an Emory funding announcement. Investigators involved with the new center hope to find genetic signatures indicative of a given patient's response to a vaccine. According to Emory, the team also intends to create "an open access database of vaccine induced molecular signatures."
By combining classic immunology approaches with genomic technologies, Pulendran says researchers gain access to an "unbiased and rapid acquisition of data," which could help them in understanding the regulatory mechanisms that underlie immunity at the molecular level, potentially enabling a more "rational vaccine design" going forward. One of the group's initial projects is aimed at identifying molecular signatures that predict the immunogenicity of the influenza, pneumococcal, and zoster vaccines in elderly populations. Pulendran adds that information gleaned from these system-wide analyses could be used to test "novel hypotheses on potential mechanisms of how vaccination induces protective immune responses."