To Better Protect Older Adults from the Flu, UConn, JAX, and Mount Sinai Team Up

The NIH is funding a longitudinal clinical trial study of next generation flu vaccines in older adults to test vaccine responsiveness. The study is a collaboration of UConn School of Medicine, The Jackson Laboratory, and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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A collaborative research team from UConn School of Medicine, The Jackson Laboratory, and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have been awarded a more than $9 million five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to pinpoint the age-related immune alterations that reduce influenza vaccine effectiveness in older adults.

Together, the research team will recruit and follow a cohort of 60 older adults, who will receive three different influenza vaccines over three subsequent influenza seasons.

Lately influenza is getting pushed out of health headlines by COVID-19, but influenza infection still causes about 36,000 deaths each year in the United States, about 90 percent of which are in patients over age 65. And among older adults, age-related changes in the immune system diminish the response to influenza vaccines.

“There is an urgent need to understand who does and does not respond to influenza vaccines and to assess the efficacy of new generation vaccines (adjuvanted or mRNA) in this high-risk population,” says Jackson Laboratory Associate Professor Duygu Ucar, an expert in aging and epigenomics, who is also a faculty member of the Department of Genomics and Genome Medicine at UConn School of Medicine.

“We hope to identify good and bad responders to influenza vaccination in the population, especially those that need it the most,” says Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, Ph.D., director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, an expert in virology and vaccine responses. “The elderly are highly vulnerable to severe influenza virus infection, and to investigate ways how we can overcome poor responses in those who do not mount an adequate protective immunity is crucial.”

Geriatrician and expert in aging research, Dr. George A. Kuchel, is director of the UConn Center on Aging which was recently named by the NIH as a Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center (OAIC) at the University of Connecticut, joining a network of only 14 other such centers of excellence across the country that promote research designed to maintain or restore independence in older adults. The UConn Pepper Center is advancing the new field of Precision Gerontology which seeks to develop interventions that are rendered more effective by better targeting growing differences between individuals that emerge with aging.

Kuchel says, “The ability to better understand biological and immune aging, including differences between older adults, will help us work towards a framework for matching older individuals with what is for them optimum treatment – or in this case influenza vaccine that is personalized to better protect them.”

“By performing comprehensive profiling of their blood antibodies and immune cells over time using advanced genomic and functional assays,“ Ucar says, “we will be able to associate specific age-related immune alterations with vaccine responder or non-responder status, thus allowing us to pinpoint biological pathways that can be targeted to enhance vaccine efficacy and that can also help us to progress towards precision vaccinology and eventually developing more effective influenza vaccines.”

This study is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Grant Number 1U01AI165452-01