Health news in the U.S. is often dominated by cancer or diabetes headlines, making it easy to forget that 1 in 3 deaths in the world is caused by infectious disease. Access to clean water, modern sanitation, efficient insect control, and the advent of effective vaccines to target childhood disease may have made us complacent. However, every now and then we get a wake-up call.
Take, for instance, the Ebola virus. Five years ago, Ebola was best known to many Americans as the subject of a non-fiction thriller about long-past outbreaks in the jungle. Ebola was not considered an imminent threat. Nonetheless, the Ebola outbreak was one of the biggest news stories of 2014, catalyzing worldwide panic, and has since killed over 10,000 people in West Africa.
On a milder scale, measles has emerged once again in America, and health officials in California declared a whooping cough epidemic in 2010. Meanwhile, tropical diseases like dengue virus have spread to Puerto Rico, Hawaii and even the mainland of Florida. This means that scientists studying ways to control infection can never rest: as a new dilemma is always right around the corner.
LJI has a rich history of conducting cutting edge research into how bacteria and viruses cause disease. Almost all LJI biologists—whether they work specifically on infectious disease or not—are keenly interested in how the many arms of the immune system recognize, react and “remember” invading agents.
In this effort, many LJI scientists conduct pre-clinical studies relevant to design and optimize vaccines to combat infectious diseases like tuberculosis or dengue virus. Historically, many vaccines have been designed to evoke an antibody response by B cells following innoculation with weakened or dead pathogens. However, these approaches still have some inherent risks, and therefore LJI vaccine experts are experimenting with the use of short fragments of pathogens to stimulate immunity.
These pathogen bits, usually composed of protein or fragments or sugars, are called “epitopes.” A primary goal of vaccine development is to identify viral or bacterial epitopes that will elicit an immune response strong enough to establish a cadre of B and T cells that have ‘memory’ to protect us when they encounter the real thing.
Thus it is fitting that LJI is also home to the Immune Epitope Database (IEDB), the world’s largest catalogue of pathogen components that mobilize those T cell or B cell responses. The IEDB serves as a freely available resource for scientists both at LJI and worldwide who are searching for new cures and preventions for infection or allergy.