Exploring responses to vaccination in older people

Exploring responses to vaccination in older people

Michelle Linterman and her research team

Michelle Linterman (fourth from left) and her research team

In 2016, we reported on Dr Michelle Linterman’s research into follicular helper T cells, which was an important piece of groundwork for this latest research into vaccination efficacy. The article is here: The challenges of vaccination in older people.

Vaccination is recognised as the best way to prevent influenza infection. Worldwide seasonal flu continues to cause serious illness, hospitalisation and even death, particularly among older patients. Vaccination works by inducing the production of antibodies which recognise and destroy influenza viruses and so prevent illness. Older people unfortunately respond less well to vaccination because of a weaker response from their ‘germinal centres’ – sites within tissues where B cells proliferate and differentiate during a normal immune response to infection. B cells are the white blood cells that produce antibodies. 

Dr Michelle Linterman, based at the Babraham Institute, has launched a new two-year project funded by the Evelyn Trust to investigate the biology of B cells in both younger and older adults. The team is studying the antibody sequences and gene expression profiles of individual B cells to find out the causes of both strong and weak responses to vaccination. The project began in September last year and has recruited 42 healthy volunteers from the NIHR Cambridge Bioresource in two age groups - 18-35 years old and over 65.

Blood samples are being taken both before and after flu vaccination to examine the behaviour of the B cells in patients of different ages. The team are using the ‘trivalent’ flu vaccination, which incorporates the three most common flu viruses circulating in any one year.

“We are studying gene expression in single B cells taken from our volunteers. We can identify influenza-specific memory B cells and so we can examine them in more detail than has ever been done previously. Memory B cells are the B cells that survive in the body for years providing a repeated and accelerated immune response to a recognised virus or bacteria. We plan single cell RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequencing of up to 800 B cells which has not been attempted at this scale before,” explains Michelle.

Michelle is excited about the potential of the project and hopes that this research will be the starting point for a new workstream of B cell focussed research in her Babraham-based lab. Ultimately the long term goal of the research is to find ways to change the behaviour of B cells in older people after vaccination to strengthen the immune response. 

“We aim to maximise the potential of vaccination against flu for patients of all ages, reducing both the burden of illness and mortality rates in older age groups.”

You can read more about Dr Linterman’s ground-breaking immunology research on the website of the Babraham Institute.

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