Science

Why focus on the aging immune system?

In the 1950s, Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar was the first scientist to pose a difference between aging and senescence, the decline of bodily functions associated with increasing age. This led to the theory of immunosenescence, or declining immune function associated with aging. While widely recognized, in scientific terms immunosenescence is poorly understood. While we know that the immune system plays a role in nearly all human diseases, from chronic to infectious, we don’t know why some people’s immune systems decline at different rates, or why vaccines work so much better in some older people than in others. If we can understand this, we can unlock the door to developing much more effective vaccines and therapies for the most devastating diseases.

This would have incalculable benefits in an aging world, and it is the central question HII plans to solve.

Even a decade ago, the tools to undertake this immensely challenging task were not in place. But now they are.

Photo of Jaap Goudsmit

“Decline or dysfunction of the immune system among people age 60 and older is a major public health issue as the global population ages. We are seeing this acutely now with COVID-19, which older people die from at much higher rates.”

Jaap Goudsmit
CSO, Human Immunomics Initiative

A new type of science: immunomics

HII will be an incubator for a new type of science, merging medical inquiry with cutting-edge information technologies. The initiative will leverage vast quantities of data from large-scale cohort studies though machine learning and artificial intelligence to understand how we can boost immunity in aging populations.

The development of this new discipline, termed immunomics, will require the integration of creative academic inquiry with industrial rigor and scale in its organizational structure, management, and decision-making. It will provide a dynamic pathway for a new generation of scientists applying the latest technologies to achieve its mission.

HII has the potential to reveal powerful new ways to defend ourselves against existing and emerging disease threats. With an unparalleled global consortium centered at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and supported by the resources of the Human Vaccine Project, this initiative has the potential to transform the future of human health.