- The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Human Vaccines Project have announced the Human Immunomics Initiative, a joint effort that will use artificial intelligence models to accelerate vaccine development.

The Human Immunomics Initiative (HII) will bring together Harvard Chan experts in epidemiology, causal inference, immunology, and computational and systems biology with the resources of the Human Vaccines Project, a human immunology-based clinical research consortium.

HII will design artificial intelligence-powered models of immunity that can accelerate vaccine development and testing for a wide range of diseases, including COVID-19.

Vaccine development can be a long and laborious process, mainly due to the complexity of the human immune system and its variability among different people and groups. With advances in computing and artificial intelligence, genomics, systems biology, and bioinformatics, HII will try to decode the underlying ways the human immune system fights disease.

“Successful vaccination requires four components —knowing the vaccine target, what kind of immune response you want, how to generate that response, and understanding responses in the people who you want to vaccinate,” said Sarah Fortune, chair of Harvard Chan’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases. 

READ MORE: Artificial Intelligence Research Collaborative Targets COVID-19

“We understand a lot about the first two elements and very little about the last two. But by addressing these critical knowledge gaps, we envision a day when there are modular blueprints for successful vaccines that speed the process and increase likelihood of success.”

The initiative will specifically focus on the principles of effective immunity in aging populations, the world’s largest growing demographic. These individuals have a massive disease burden, as well as high morbidity and mortality in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent research has shown that older adults are at greater risk of complications from coronavirus. A study from UTHealth estimated that areas with high concentrations of residents over the age of 65 or with chronic diseases are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, and are most likely to require hospitalization.

In its pilot phase, HII will examine how immunity changes with age, and how to predict or improve immune response among older adults.

“Decline or dysfunction of the immune system among people age 70 and older is a major public health issue as the global population ages. We are seeing this acutely now with COVID-19, which is mostly spread by younger people, but which older people die from at much higher rates,” said Jaap Goudsmit, adjunct professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at Harvard Chan School and chief scientific officer of the Human Vaccines Project.

READ MORE: Is Artificial Intelligence Mature Enough to Combat COVID-19?

The insights from HII will help develop artificial intelligence-powered models that allow researchers to virtually test potential vaccines and predict which therapies might work best across populations. This could accelerate vaccine and drug development, resulting in less money spent on trials and testing.

“The way we fight disease is broken—we launch into disease-specific battles without understanding the rules that affect our chances of success,” said Michelle A. Williams, Dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“The Human Vaccines Project set out to change that by decoding the human immunome, and we are already seeing initial findings from their tremendous work. We are excited to bring the intellectual and technological resources of Harvard Chan School, and our colleagues across Harvard, to further those efforts through HII.”

HII will work with blood samples from thousands of people enrolled in epidemiological studies around the world. Members of the Human Vaccine Project and Harvard Chan scientists have done extensive work in various cohorts, and specific pilot studies are almost completed.

HII will build on these longitudinal cohort studies and apply state-of-the-art methods in epidemiology, immune monitoring, systems biology, AI and machine learning to define effective immunity in aging populations. Researchers will then apply this data towards speeding vaccine and therapeutic development.

READ MORE: Artificial Intelligence Model Tracks Spread of Lyme Disease

“The world’s population is aging at unprecedented rates, significantly increasing the burden of non-communicable diseases and vulnerability to infectious diseases, as evidenced by the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wayne C. Koff, president and CEO of the Human Vaccines Project.

“The complexity of the human immune system has confounded efforts to prevent and control diseases in aging populations, and this collaboration will marry expansive data collection through clinical research with new technologies and cutting-edge science to catalyze new approaches to fighting major global diseases.”

By combining the Human Vaccine Project’s global network of academic, biotech, and pharma partners with Harvard’s expertise, HII will enhance the potential for defining effective immunity in aging populations. The initiative will aim to develop novel strategies for enabling longer, healthier lives.

“We are very excited to launch the Human Immunomics Initiative with the Harvard Chan School, and bring together our synergistic capabilities towards accelerating disease prevention for aging populations,” said Koff.