Why the Flu Vaccine Is Less Effective in the Elderly
Around this time every year, the flu virus infects up to one-fifth of the U.S. population and kills thousands of people, many of them elderly. A study published by Cell Press on December 15th 2015 in Immunity explains why the flu vaccine is less effective at protecting older individuals. More broadly, the findings reveal novel molecular signatures that could be used to predict which individuals are most likely to respond positively to vaccination.
A release from the publisher quotes co-senior study authors Shankar Subramaniam of the University of California, San Diego and Bali Pulendran of Emory University, as saying, “We provide novel evidence of a potential connection between the baseline state of the immune system in the elderly and reduced responsiveness to vaccination,” say “By providing a more complete picture of how the immune system responds to vaccination, our findings may help guide the development of next-generation vaccines that offer long-lasting immunity and better protection of at-risk populations.”
The release explains that Flu vaccines, which contain proteins found in circulating viral strains, offer protection by eliciting the production of antibodies — proteins that help the immune system identify pathogens and protect against infectious disease. While vaccination is considered the most effective method for preventing influenza, it is less effective in the elderly. But until now, the molecular mechanisms underlying this decrease in vaccine efficacy were unknown.
To address this question, Subramaniam and Pulendran identified molecular signatures of immunity to flu vaccination using systems biology approaches, which involve the computational and mathematical modeling of complex biological systems. They vaccinated 212 subjects, including 54 elderly individuals, across five influenza vaccine seasons, from 2007 to 2011, and analyzed blood samples to identify molecular pathways associated with protective antibody responses elicited by vaccination. They also analyzed previously published data for 218 additional subjects.
Using this approach, the researchers identified molecular signatures present in blood samples collected a few days after vaccination that predicted with 80% accuracy whether the vaccine would elicit immune protection approximately four weeks later. Within one week of flu vaccination, young individuals showed high levels of antibody-producing B cells, whereas the elderly showed high levels of immune cells called monocytes, which elicit inflammatory responses in the body. These age-related differences predicted impaired vaccine-induced immune responses observed in the elderly three weeks later. “Together, these results suggest potential mechanisms by which changes to the innate response in the elderly may result in diminished antibody responses to vaccination,” Subramaniam says.