“Pioneering a new era of human health”, scientists at the Human Immune Project are tackling “one of the greatest remaining frontiers”: the human immune system. Formerly known as the Human Vaccines Project, and modelled after the Human Genome Project, they are “unlocking the mechanisms of human immunity”. Their aim is to “transform how we fight our most devastating diseases” and their methods combine systems biology and artificial intelligence. In this piece we take a closer look at who they are and what they do.  

The future of immunity 

The HIP identifies a major challenge in vaccine research: the “limits of scientific knowledge”. Fighting “insidious and biologically complex diseases” is no mean feat, and examples of HIV, tuberculosis, and various cancers underpin the difficulty we face. Furthermore, as we prepare blindly for the next pandemic, we can only make (reasonably scientific) guesses at what it might bring.  

“A new approach is necessary now, one that is rooted in identifying and understanding the common elements of the human immune system that overlap across global populations and that allow us to harness this knowledge and the collective intelligence of scientists”  

Recognising this need, the HIP is putting “breakthrough advances in biomedicine merged with AI” into the hands of the “world’s top scientists”.   Across a worldwide network, partners are “compiling the biggest dataset of biomedicine at a population scale”. With this, an AI model of the immune system can be created, to accelerate and reduce the cost of vaccine and treatment development.  

“Our goal is nothing short of enabling people to live much healthier – and longer – lives.”  

A helping hand from AI  

Dr Wayne Koff is the President and CEO of the Human Immunome Project. He describes everyone’s immune system as “unique” but asks why vaccines can be 90% effective at protecting against disease.  

“Our task is to develop a model or a series of models that will eventually be able to explain this and that will eventually allow us to predict how the immune system will respond to pathogens, vaccines, drugs, and immunotherapies.”  

The task will be made possible with the power of AI and deep learning. A platform known as AlphaFold is already solving protein structures in rapid time. Further possibilities include ever improving interpretation of retinal imaging to predict risks of disease. For Dr Koff, this is “extraordinary”.  

“All of this is giving us new opportunities.” 

Writing for the Human Immunome Project, Kristen Jill Abboud suggests that AI can “accelerate and vastly improve the use of in silico studies to prioritise vaccines or therapies without the need for large clinical trials”. The Project is therefore working to “develop and implement” a plan with partners. The future looks bright for the project but will need careful consideration and collaboration. Part of this will involve a “consensus on how immunome data should be generated, accessed, and managed”. With “social and ethical implications”, the project certainly has its work cut out! 

Dr Wayne Koff is on the Scientific Advisory Board for both the World Vaccine and Immunotherapy Congress in November 2022, and the World Vaccine Congress in April 2023. To join us at either event get your tickets now.