Exploring influenza pandemics and identifying people most at risk from the flu

Mark Davis, PhD, and his colleagues are using some $3.1 million in stimulus funds to explore why vaccines against influenza prompt different responses in different people and why some people are more vulnerable to flu than others to begin with. The insights they gain could lead to more effective vaccination strategies not only for the seasonal flu, but also in the event of more severe pandemics.

Mark Davis, PhDThe research involves building a unique blood and tissue bank with samples from people who have received flu vaccines, as well as those who haven't. Davis is studying how immune responses to these vaccines decline as people age. Using the latest bioinformatic tools, he and his colleagues plan to analyze hundreds of molecules and cells isolated from patients' blood and tissue. They hope to identify which ones may be "biomarkers" that can project in advance who is most susceptible to the virus. They also are looking for biomarkers that show either when someone has had a healthy, effective response to the vaccine or doesn't respond.

In addition, the researchers intend to look specifically at the immune responses to flu vaccines of twins to better understand whether genetics may affect responses to influenza and, if so, identify the genes associated with particular responses.

This work could allow public health officials in the future to select with greater precision those people most in need of influenza vaccines, saving both lives and money. The biomarkers could also be used to accelerate efforts to gauge a vaccine's effectiveness, helping to speed up vaccine development and production and increasing the likelihood of limiting the spread of the disease.

Davis, director of the Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, is putting together an interdisciplinary team of immunologists, infectious disease specialists, vaccinologists, molecular biologists, geneticists, bioengineers and experts in immune monitoring and bioinformatics to conduct the studies. On the "twins" portion of the project, the medical school scientists will be collaborating with a researcher from SRI Inc. The funding has generated at least eight new positions and supplemented the pay for 11 others at Stanford.

The tissue and blood repository will open a door to a new approach for investigating the causes and treatment of a wide range of illnesses. It will enable scientists to rely less on experiments on mice, which are not an ideal substitute for human beings; instead, researchers can analyze on a molecular level tens of thousands of patient samples and use computing power to see what distinguishes the healthy people from the sick.