By ucsf.edu | August 29, 2012
They haven't cured the common cold yet, but a nationwide “big science” team aims to identify new strategies for orchestrating immune responses to better fight disease.
It's called the Immunological Genome Project, a multimillion-dollar endeavor funded by the National Institutes of Health to comprehensively examine the activities of immune cells and their interrelationships. Seven all-star immunologists together with three number-crunching bioinformatics wizards lead the effort.
Genes Eyed as Key to Understanding Immune System
Vaccination is the best-known and most successful manipulation of the immune system and has been widely available for nearly a century. But immunology still is a frontier of medicine. Major challenges remain when it comes to understanding what the immune system is doing in sickness and in health.
As researchers dig deeper, the picture is becoming more detailed. Previously unknown cell types, undetected molecular signaling pathways and unsuspected roles for immune cells and their secretions have been turning up on a regular basis. Immunology textbooks require frequent rewriting based on these many new discoveries. Project scientists believe that adding genes and bioinformatics to the mix will help them make sense of massive amounts still-accumulating data, and to more quickly find within it the keys to understanding how the immune system is controlled.
All cells in the body possess the same genes. But not all the genes are actively directing the production of the proteins that build and maintain the body and carry out all its functions. Patterns of gene activation - called “expression” - vary among different cell types and guide the cells' development and function.
Learning more about which genes are distinctly expressed in specific cell types - and which are switched off or on as the immune system battles particular types of microbial foes - can reveal more about the roles of these immune cells and how they work together in carefully controlled ways, according Lewis Lanier, PhD, one of the leaders of the Immunological Genome Project and the chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF.