|The National Institutes of Health has awarded the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation $8.132 million to study the influenza vaccine. The five-year project will examine why the vaccine does not protect certain individuals with compromised immune systems.”Influenza research is one of the most competitive and difficult arenas in which to secure funding,” said J. Donald Capra, M.D., president of OMRF. “To win a contract of this magnitude against stiff competition from across the country speaks volumes about the quality of Oklahoma’s biomedical scientists.”
Led by Linda Thompson, Ph.D., and Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., the project will specifically examine why patients suffering from lupus fail to make adequate responses to immunization with the influenza vaccine. Lupus is one of the so-called “autoimmune” diseases, conditions in which the body mistakenly turns the weapons of its own immune system against itself. Other autoimmune diseases include type I (juvenile) diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
“In people with compromised immune systems, the influenza vaccine fails to elicit the proper immune response,” said Thompson. “These people—who include the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, transplant patients taking anti-rejection drugs, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and those who suffer from autoimmune diseases—make up a significant portion of the population.”
Over a five-year period, the scientists will study the blood of lupus patients (and a matched group of healthy controls) and analyze their immune responses to annual flu vaccinations. In particular, the researchers will focus on the functioning of two types of cells: T cells (white blood cells critical to the immune response) and B cells (which play a central role in producing the infection-fighting proteins known as antibodies).
“We want to understand why the immune response fails in lupus patients,” said Thompson. “If we are able to figure out why the vaccine doesn’t take hold in them, it could offer an important window into why immunization also fails to protect so many others against the flu.”
Each year, influenza kills an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Americans, mainly the elderly and those whose immune systems are already compromised by other medical conditions. But with its ability to mutate rapidly and frequently, a new strain of the virus could potentially claim millions of lives.
In particular, scientists are concerned about potential strains like avian flu, where animal and human influenza viruses combine to create a form of the virus that is both highly lethal and contagious. On Wednesday, scientists announced that it was a form of avian flu that caused the 1918 influenza outbreak, which claimed millions of lives in one of history’s deadliest epidemics.
“Wednesday’s announcement underscores the potential danger we face from avian flu,” said Capra. “With this influenza contract, OMRF will join the worldwide effort to protect the population from the flu virus in all its many forms.”
“Once researchers can understand why the flu vaccine fails in certain patients, the next step will be to figure out how to remedy this problem,” said Thompson. “This information could provide an important building block to producing more effective vaccines. And as new, more lethal strains of influenza continue to emerge, creating more effective vaccines will be key to saving lives.”
In addition to Thompson and James, other OMRF scientists working on the project will be Mark Coggeshall, Ph.D., Patrick Wilson, Ph.D., and Joel Guthridge, Ph.D. Gillian Air, Ph.D., and William Hildebrand, Ph.D., both of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, will also collaborate on the study.