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Germany Funds $3.7M for Aging Immunity

By a GenomeWeb Staff Reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) will use €2.6 million ($3.7 million) to fund a public-private partnership that will use systems biology approaches to study how the human immune system weakens as people age.

The three-year GerontoShield project will be led by the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig, and will engage partners including the Institute for Molecular Microbiology and Hygiene at the University of Regensburg, Amvac Research, and GeneXplain.

As a person ages, his/her immune system has to deal with a loss of cells and the remaining cells cannot fight off infections and are less helped by vaccinations than the cells of a younger person, HZI said. In a statement, Carlos Guzmán, HZI Professor of Vaccinology and Applied Microbiology and project coordinator, added that 10 percent of every person over the age of 65 dies from the flu.

"We still know too little about which changes occur in an aging immune system," Guzman said, explaining that new approaches to treating diseases in the elderly are needed.

The scientists will focus their research efforts on how young and old immune systems react to adjuvants that boost the immune system and improve the efficiency of vaccinations.

"In the end, this knowledge would help to develop new vaccination strategies that are specifically tailored to old people," Guzmán added.

Specifically, the researchers will study the differences in immune responses in young and old mice, and then they will transfer those results onto human cells. Based on data from that research, systems biologists will generate mathematical models that could be used to understand the molecular mechanisms unerlying immune responses in the elderly. That data could be used to develop personalized strategies for treating the elderly, according to HZI.

"We also seek to identify risk markers predicting increased susceptibility for infectious diseases in the elderly," added Michael Meyer-Hermann, head of the HZI's Department of Systems Immunology and co-coordinator of the project.

Those markers could be used to detect individuals with a high risk for severe diseases, which could enable physicians to flag them for specifically tailored therapies, Meyer-Hermann said.