Immunoinformatics Can Help Advance Vaccine Development & Fight Infectious Disease

By the bioMérieux Connection Editors

The immune systems of humans and animals are complex—because of this, immunology studies are costly and intensive. However, colossal amounts of data are usually generated during these studies, which is critical in better understanding immune systems and can inform vaccine development and design.

Bioinformatics and diagnostics help quickly analyze the large amounts of data generated in immunology studies and can reduce both labor and time drastically. The storage, management, and analysis of immunological data is generally referred to as immunoinformatics. Immunoinformatics has dramatically advanced our knowledge of the human immune system and has greatly benefitted the vaccine development process. For example, thanks to advanced diagnostic tools, genome sequencing and in vitro T-cell confirmation can be done in a few months as opposed to years using conventional vaccine design methods.

Immunoinformatics is still a relatively new field, especially in the application of vaccine development. Authors of a February 2020 ImmunoTargets and Therapy article argue that immunoinformatics can help tackle three major concerns: emerging infectious disease, pathogens with antigenic variability, and personalized vaccines. Additionally, advances in vaccine development contribute in important ways to the fight against antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Emerging and Re-Surging Diseases

Emerging infections include those that are entirely new in a population, like SARS-CoV-2, or those that may have existed before but are re-introduced and spread, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Emerging infections and antibiotic resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria usually originate and surge in one geographic location and then spread to other places, as was the case with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increasing global population and the variability in quality of infection control practices worldwide ensure that infections will emerge and spread. In 2018, the World Health Organization noted that if not controlled, emerging infections can lead to disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, and other issues, requiring urgent public health attention and creating a compelling demand for accelerated research in this area.

Immunoinformatics can help provide information on an emerging pathogen’s genome, protein make-up, immune system interactions, and research on possible therapeutics. As the understanding of innate and adaptive immunity increases, opportunities for more effective vaccines increase. The information immunoinformatics can provide can greatly impact the design and development of a novel vaccine for emerging infections, which is a major step forward in protecting public health and controlling infectious disease.

Pathogens with Antigenic Variability

Antigenically variable pathogens modify their surface proteins so they can evade the host’s immunological attacks, effectively evading adaptive immunity and re-establishing infection. Most of the world’s infectious disease burden today is caused by such pathogens, and the mechanism is common in bacteria like Neisseria gonorrehea, Neisseria meningitides, and Mycoplasma. Antigenic variability has often been a major obstacle in vaccine development.

However, immunoinformatics has helped advance vaccine development for antigenically variable pathogens, focusing specifically on the design of multiepitope vaccines.  An epitope is the part of an antigen that is recognized by the immune system—thus, multiepitope vaccines are an assemblage of several epitopes. Multiepitope vaccines can help address challenges related to antigenic variability and also with reducing the risk of allergic reactions.

Personalized Vaccines

Personalized vaccines refer to vaccines that are created for an individual or for a specific population. They are designed to address environmental, genetic, or other factors that may be influencing a vaccine’s efficacy, or when a disease is specific to an individual. Personalized vaccines are a fairly new development with applications ranging from cancer treatment to infectious diseases. However, there are many practical obstacles to utilization—having to use unique vaccines based on personal genetic composition requires much more time and labor at all stages of the vaccination process. Sequencing technologies and immunoinformatics can help the process by more quickly analyzing and interpreting data that will help improve the development of personalized vaccines.

One group that may especially benefit from further advancements in personalized vaccines is pregnant women. With certain exceptions, such as the flu vaccine, data on the safety of vaccination in pregnant women is limited because they are often excluded from vaccine trials due to presumed maternal and fetal dangers. Immunoinformatic tools can be utilized to help investigate the immunogenic responses specific to pregnant women and the fetus. Understanding the immune systems of pregnant women is imperative in order to develop safe vaccines and protect this group during infection outbreaks and epidemics.

Fighting Antimicrobial Resistance

There are many well-established methods being used to help reduce the global burden of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a major public health threat that experts have characterized as a slow-motion pandemic. Sanitation and hygiene, funding to develop new antibiotics, antimicrobial stewardship, elimination of routine antibiotic use in livestock, and education initiatives have all shown benefit. However, among members of the public, it is less well known that vaccines are also effective and valuable tools that can help combat AMR.

Disease prevention by vaccination decreases antibiotic use and reduces AMR. If an infection is prevented entirely, there is no need to use antibiotics to treat it or any potential co-infections that may arise. This is true for viral vaccines, such as the flu shot, as well. Even moderately effective flu vaccines can reduce antibiotic use by preventing secondary bacterial infections and preventing the inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat the flu.

Because immunoinformatics can help more quickly and effectively develop vaccines, it too plays an important role in tackling AMR. Immunoinformatics is also being used to design and develop vaccines specifically targeting multidrug-resistant pathogens, such as Bacteroides fragilis andVibrio vulnificus. Advances in vaccine development, especially for difficult or resistant pathogens, will be a critical contribution in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of bioMérieux, Inc.

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