Big Data Gives a Boost to Immunology Research and Potentially, Treatments

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Researchers at UC San Francisco have unveiled the largest searchable database of immunology data, gathered from 10,000 people of various ages, ethnicity, and backgrounds. It could lead to more effective treatments for a wide range of immune disorders.

The new data pool represents the largest control group ever compiled on the human immune system, according to the study published on Tuesday in the journal, Cell Reports.

Called the 10,000 Immunomes Project (10KIP), it's the culmination of four years of work and provides an instant comparison group for researchers studying the immune system and immune dysfunction.

UCSF researchers created the tool using immunology data from 83 studies representing 10,000 healthy subjects, according to senior author Atul Butte, director of the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute at UCSF.

The data comes from studies on organ transplants, autoimmune disease trials, vaccine studies and other research funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

"We have sub-populations in the U.S. that don't really participate in studies so why not just gather all this massive data on the immune system in one central place," says Butte. "We can turn to this data to see what is going on in a healthy immune system spanning different populations in the U.S."

Butte says the ability to manipulate immune system activity will benefit a wide range of patients, including transplant recipients, cancer and AIDS patients, and those suffering from some form of immune dysfunction.

Autoimmune Disease (AD) in particular,  an historically underfunded field, could benefit greatly from the availability of a large and diverse control group, according to Butte.

Rise of Autoimmine Disease

AD is one of the fastest growing illnesses in the U.S., with 20 percent of the population or one in five people, suffering from the disorder.

Despite AD being one of the top 10 leading causes of death in females up to 64 years of age, research has continued to lag behind, according to Butte.

The National Institutes of Health has spent $591 million dollars on AD research compared to the $6.1 billion spent on cancer. Current treatments consist of risky immunosuppressants that can lead to devastating long-term side effects.

UCSF researchers developed the new searchable database in part to boost AD research. Typically, studies done on immune systems are smaller and it's rare to get 10,000 participants, according to Butte.

Plus, the human immune system is a moving target.

"It's a difficult field to study because unlike DNA for example, your immune system changes from morning to night. So which aspect of the immune system scientists focus on, and when they study it, these are all problems we are getting better at. We just need more studies."

To test their new tool, researchers created a custom control group comprised of women between 18 and 40 years of age and compared it to 56 pregnant women who participated in a prior study tracking immune changes during pregnancy.

Using this control group, researchers were able to detect how various immune cells and cell signaling proteins, called cytokines, changed from pre-pregnancy levels— measurements that the original study failed to pick up.

Researchers also used the new tool to compare immunity in people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The findings showed both known differences as well as new information that could only be seen by combining data from dozens of different studies.

For instance, researchers found that regulatory T cells, which suppress the immune response, are present at higher levels in African Americans, compared to all other groups.

Shareable Science

Butte sees the searchable database as part of a broader trend in science, promoting open access where more scientists are willing to share their raw data with others.

"It's really hundreds of people who have essentially contributed to this work," he notes.

Butte says he hopes his work will bring immunology to the forefront and inspire others to rethink their approach to the field.

"If the field of genetics is able to compile large collections consisting of millions of people," he wonders, "why does immunology lag behind? I want to get people in the field thinking about larger collections of samples that cut across race, age and gender."

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