New test can predict if flu antibodies will be produced by the body

Emory Vaccine Center researchers have developed a method that can predict whether or not someone will produce high levels of antibodies against a flu shot a few days after being vaccinated.

The researchers can scan the extent to which carefully selected genes are turned on in white blood cells and can use that information to predict on day three, with up to 90 percent accuracy, who will make high levels of antibodies four weeks after a standard flu shot.

"It often takes several weeks after vaccination for an individual to develop sufficient levels of protective antibodies against the influenza virus," Bali Pulendran, the senior author of the study and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center, said. "The ability to predict who will meet these criteria within a few days after vaccination and identify non-responders would be of great value from a public health perspective. We envision that these predictive signatures could guide the rapid development of vaccines against emerging infections, and aid in the monitoring of suboptimal immune responses in the elderly, infants or people with weakened immune systems."

The researchers used a systems biology approach that involved genomics, immunology and bioinformatics. Pulendran and his colleagues pioneered this approach while studying the yellow fever vaccine and wanted to extend it to more vaccines like the flu. The predictive model is based on a series of clinical studies during annual flu seasons in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The gene activity data the researchers gathered was used to “train” a computer model to identify small groups of genes that can predict high and low responders.

"The main goal of our study was to demonstrate the feasibility of predicting how strongly a vaccine will stimulate the immune system," Pulendran said. "Along the way, we have developed an assay that focuses on a handful of genes, which could be the basis for a customized vaccine chip to make these predictions cost-effectively."

The researchers want to examine if the signatures that predict immune responses to flu can predict responses to other vaccines as well.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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