$2.6M NIH grant funds research in boosting healthy infant immune development

Babies in carriers

Columbus, Ohio and Farmington, Conn. — The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded a grant totaling $2,619,262 over five years to researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) to find new and better ways to boost the immune systems of infants and young children against invasive infections.

While immunization programs have dramatically decreased the global morbidity and mortality caused by infections, infectious diseases remain the most frequent cause of death in infants and young children.

“Babies and toddlers are highly vulnerable to invasive infections,” says Octavio Ramilo, M.D., chief of the infectious diseases division of Nationwide Children’s, “because they haven’t yet developed protective immune responses, including to vaccines. So they require multiple doses of vaccines to achieve adequate long-term protection.”

To understand the mechanisms behind this vulnerability, grant co-principal investigators Ramilo and JAX Professor Jacques Banchereau, Ph.D., will seek out the characteristic cellular and genomic “signatures” of the infant immune system. The researchers will collect and analyze blood-derived immune cells from infants at 2, 6 and 12 months, conducting longitudinal genomic and cellular studies of immune development and primary responses to routine two-month vaccines.

“The project will yield highly sensitive and complementary datasets that will allow us to correlate immune responses to vaccines with the underlying immune signatures that give rise to them,” Banchereau says, “thereby laying a foundation for new strategies to boost healthy infant immune development.”

Previous studies of the infant immune system have been hampered by difficulty in obtaining clinical samples from infants, the incompatibility of many genomic technologies for use in small-volume samples, and the lack of bioinformatic tools for integrating and interpreting complimentary yet complex datasets.

Nationwide Children’s has access to large infant populations, and the researchers have devised an innovative profiling and analysis process that extracts the maximum information from a single infant blood sample. JAX bioinformatics experts will integrate the resulting datasets “for unparalleled depth of insight into the correlated cellular and genomic signatures of immune development and vaccine responsiveness,” Banchereau comments.

Nationwide Children’s is one of America’s largest pediatric health care and research centers, delivering care for more than one million patient visits each year. Families travel from around the nation and around the globe to access life-saving treatments, many unavailable anywhere else.  The Research Institute is among the largest pediatric research centers in the United States and is ranked among the top 10 for National Institutes of Health funding among free-standing children's hospitals.

The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution based in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center, a facility in Sacramento, Calif., and a genomic medicine institute in Farmington, Conn. It employs more than 2,000 staff, and its mission is to discover precise genomic solutions for disease and empower the global biomedical community in the shared quest to improve human health.