November 13, 2009

Grant bolsters study of human B cells

Grant bolsters study of human B cells

James Crowe Jr., M.D., in collaboration with scientists across the Vanderbilt campus, has won a five-year, $5.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study human B cell immunity, and to find new approaches to designing vaccines.

Crowe, professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology & Immunology and director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, said the grant integrates the work of scientists at both the University and Medical Center to advance the study of B cells, the white blood cells that produce antibodies and form the immune system's “memory” of the bacteria and viruses they encounter.

“It has been a desire of mine to bring the computational science strength of the University into this work with the immune system,” Crowe said.

James Crowe Jr., M.D.

James Crowe Jr., M.D.

“This contract provides the support to do that, so we can use the power of supercomputing in medical discovery. In addition, the Vaccine Program and the Center for Structural Biology can look at antibodies from different scientific angles. Now we will have a chance to work together. This interdisciplinary approach is going to be very powerful.”

Crowe said his lab has long been working to find out how B cells recognize specific viruses, remembering them in fine detail to generate monoclonal antibodies so the next time around they can more quickly fight off infection.

Recently, Crowe and colleagues found that people who had survived the 1918 flu pandemic retained strong antibodies to the virus even 90 years after exposure.

“Jim's work has consistently been at the very forefront of B cell biology and the genesis of immunity to viral pathogens, and this grant will allow him to accelerate his progress,” said Louis Muglia, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair for Research Affairs in Pediatrics.

Crowe said B cell research flew under the national scientific radar until a decade of keenly-watched work with T cells was unable to solve major challenges of developing vaccines for viruses like HIV. Now, interest in, and funding for, B cell work has been re-ignited.

Five centers were selected by the NIH for large, long-term grants to study B cells. Crowe, a viral immunologist and expert in human B cells will collaborate with Ben Spiller, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pharmacology and a crystallographer with experience in determining the structure of antibodies; and Jens Meiler, Ph.D., assistant professor of Chemistry and an expert in computational modeling of proteins and their interactions.

While all centers selected for the federally funded B cell work will meet periodically and collaborate, each will work on different pathogens or aspects of the research. Among the first targets of study for the Vanderbilt group will be antibodies to avian influenza (H5N1) and smallpox viruses.