News Release: Research, School of Medicine

Aug. 13,  2009

Emory Leads National Human Immunology Center, Funded by $16 Million NIH Grant

Research Aims to Improve Vaccine Effectiveness Against Established and Emerging New Diseases

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The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year grant of $16 million to a Human Immunology Center led by the Emory Vaccine Center. The goal of the center is to improve the effectiveness of vaccines against infectious diseases by investigating the entire range of human immune responses, beginning in the laboratory and progressing to human clinical trials.

"Despite the success of many vaccines, there still is not enough knowledge about the immune mechanisms that make vaccines effective or ineffective over the long term," says principal investigator Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. "Vaccination is the most effective means of preventing infectious disease, and the information we discover will be critical in the design of future vaccines against both longstanding and emerging new infectious diseases and other biologic threats."

Emory researchers will partner with scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Mahidol University in Thailand, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Rockefeller University and the University of Chicago.

The grant is a renewal of a previous $16 million grant awarded to Emory's Human Immunology Center in 2003. Since then the researchers have learned a great deal about the immune system by studying one of the most successful vaccines ever developed - the yellow fever vaccine.

Those studies led to important advances, including discoveries about antigen-specific T cell responses in humans vaccinated with the yellow fever and smallpox vaccines, innate immune mechanisms through which the vaccine launches a broad and robust T cell immunity, genomic signatures that can predict the vaccine's ability to induce immunity and potential molecular defects that explain the less than optimal response of aged T cells to vaccination.

The Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) - a public-private partnership of Georgia's leading research universities, business and state government - has been a strong partner and supporter of the Emory Vaccine Center since it was launched in 1996 and will provide the Human Immunology Center with matching funds of $1.5 million.  In 2007, the GRA launched a bold initiative to position Georgia as a world leader in discovering a new class of vaccines and therapeutics.

"The Emory Vaccine Center has been one of our most successful investments," says C. Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance. "Not only has the Center brought more than $260 million in non-state funding for its research to Georgia, EVC scientists are also world leaders in the breakthrough discoveries that will generate new vaccines for infectious and chronic diseases."

Current and ongoing research within the new grant will focus on three major projects, including immune memory, innate immunity and immune senescence (the aging of the immune system), and will incorporate gene profiling and regulation, epigenetics and computational biology. A technology development project will study the use of human monoclonal antibodies as new and more efficient tools to diagnose and treat rapidly emerging infectious diseases.

The goal of the center is to study the human immune response to vaccines in its entirety, from innate responses to peak immune responses, to the development of long-term immune memory.  Increased understanding about how a successful vaccine works will allow researchers to design strategies to enhance vaccine efficacy, and understanding at a cellular level how vaccines lose their effectiveness over time will help them improve the responses of the elderly to vaccination.

"The knowledge we acquire will allow us to manipulate immune responses to either enhance immunity in the case of vaccines and immune therapy or to decrease immune responses in autoimmune diseases, transplantation and gene therapy," says Ahmed.


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include schools of medicine, nursing, and public health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; the Emory Winship Cancer Institute; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.3 billion budget, 17,000 employees, 2,300 full-time and 1,900 affiliated faculty, 4,300 students and trainees, and a $4.9 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

Learn more about Emory’s health sciences:
Twitter: @emoryhealthsci

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