TGen’s latest citizen-scientist project tackles viruses and immune response
There are more than 300 viruses that can trigger an immune response with defensive antibodies in humans. These viruses can be as deadly as HIV and Ebola, or as common as the cold. Many are not serious and produce no symptoms.
Still, depending on each individual’s DNA, every person’s response is unique, and what may not affect one person may cause another to become violently ill. On average, adults expose themselves to as many as 10 different viruses every year.
All of which led to a hypothesis by TGen North immunologist Dr. John Altin: What if there was a way to detect every virus we encounter, and record our immune system’s response?
Inspired by MindCrowd (see Pages 2-3), Dr. Altin devised a different type of citizen-science project called MyImmunity, which will use large numbers of volunteers to create a global atlas of human immune responses.
“We now have the technology to look beyond one virus and one immune response at a time,” said Dr. Altin, an Assistant Professor in TGen’s Pathogen and Microbiome Division, TGen North, in Flagstaff, Arizona. “MyImmunity will attempt to look across the entire universe of viruses and responses — all in one simple test. This will give us a holistic picture of how humans and virus co-exist.”
Dr. Altin envisions MyImmunity as an app-based study that will look broadly at individuals’ immune memory for exposure to a large set of pathogens. Individuals interested in participating in the study will download the study-related app, enroll, answer questions regarding their medical history, and then receive a blood collection kit.
The kit, part of a relatively new technology, records blood samples on special paper that doesn’t require refrigeration. Participants submit a simple finger prick of blood — similar to the type of blood-sugar test used by many with diabetes — periodically taken over the course of several weeks or months, then mail the card back to TGen.
The genomic information contained within each sample traces how the immune system changes over time following exposure to numerous viruses. Each exposure is “seen” by the immune system and contributes to the body’s “immune memory” by building an antibody response and resistance to each virus.
“This is about participants being able to better understand their own immune responses,” Dr. Altin said. “Maybe an individual gets sick more than they think they should, and they want to know more about what might be causing their illness?”
The MyImmunity project could help researchers track disease outbreaks, explain how aging effects the immune system, and zero in on biomarkers that reveal how one individual’s immune system differs from those of another. It also could lead to the development of vaccines against various diseases.
“We think there are some real possibilities for translational medicine. For example, viruses that normally cause few or no symptoms can become deadly after bone marrow transplantation. If we could track how the immune system recovers after transplantation, we may be able to provide personalized guidance that improves patient outcomes,” Dr. Altin said.
While drawing inspiration from MindCrowd, Dr. Altin’s project differs greatly in many ways. MindCrowd volunteers spend less than 10 minutes taking the on-line assessment. MyImmunity asks participants to collect data over weeks or months. MindCrowd data is instantly accessible. MyImmunity samples require laboratory analysis. MindCrowd seeks 1 million participants. Dr. Altin wants MyImmunity to eventually draw 10,000 volunteers.
“The early success of MindCrowd shows us crowdsource science is possible,” said Dr. Altin. “I look forward to seeing where this project takes us.”
Creating a Tuberculosis Vaccine
In addition to MyImmunity, Dr. Altin’s lab is involved in another critical pathogen investigation: tuberculosis, or TB.
Thanks to modern medicine, TB is virtually gone in the U.S., which records less than 10,000 cases a year, and very few deaths. But in the rest of the world, this potentially severe bacterial lung infection affects nearly 1-in-4 people, annually killing as many as 1.5 million.
“TB is the most deadly pathogen on the planet,” Dr. Altin said. “It’s a big problem that needs better solutions.”
Currently, only one relatively effective vaccine against TB exists. Named after the French scientists who developed it, children in countries with high percentages of TB receive Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) to prevent TB-related meningitis and miliary TB. However, it’s not considered a universal preventative.
“There also are a number of experimental vaccines, but nothing that has really taken off,” Dr. Altin said. “Our hope is that we can better understand this disease; that we can identify individuals who have better immune responses to TB, and identify the biomarkers that show why some people are better protected than others.”
Another factor in controlling TB is the speed at which it is evolving, developing drug resistance to current TB therapeutics. In a partnership with Tucson’s Critical Path Institute, TGen is in the process of sequencing nearly 9,000 TB samples from around the world, searching for genetic vulnerabilities.
“If we can develop a successful biomarker,” Dr. Altin said, “that would accelerate the process of creating a more effective TB vaccine.”
TGen pursues global rollout of advanced TB test
In an important step toward the eventual global eradication of tuberculosis (TB), TGen has signed a licensing agreement with an international biomedical firm, Advanced Biological Laboratories (ABL), to market and distribute TGen’s patented next generation sequencing based TB test technology — DeepChek-TB.
ABL is working toward distribution of the compact, portable and affordable diagnostic test that physicians worldwide could use to help determine the most appropriate treatment for each TB patient. Current tests can take 6-9 weeks to complete. DeepChek-TB can deliver results in just 2-3 days, and identify drug-resistant TB among mixed infections.
Because of modern medicine, TB in the U.S. continues to be a relatively minor threat. Globally, however, this lung-damaging communicable disease infects nearly one-fourth of the world’s population and kills nearly 3 people every minute.