If you’re 35 or younger, your genes can predict whether the flu vaccine will work

Researchers still searching for a similar genetic ‘crystal ball’ for older adults

person getting a flu shot

FORTUNE TELLER  A set of nine genes can signal whether a young adult will develop a strong response to the flu vaccine, a new study finds.


A genetic “crystal ball” can predict whether certain people will respond effectively to the flu vaccine.

Nine genes are associated with a strong immune response to the flu vaccine in those aged 35 and under, a new study finds. If these genes were highly active before vaccination, an individual would generate a high level of antibodies after vaccination, no matter the flu strain in the vaccine, researchers report online August 25 in Science Immunology. This response can help a person avoid getting the flu.

The research team also tried to find a predictive set of genes in people aged 60 and above — a group that includes those more likely to develop serious flu-related complications, such as pneumonia — but failed. Even so, the study is “a step in the right direction,” says Elias Haddad, an immunologist at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, who did not participate in the research. “It could have implications in terms of identifying responders versus nonresponders by doing a simple test before a vaccination.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that vaccination prevented 5.1 million flu illnesses in the 2015‒2016 season. Getting a flu shot is the best way to stay healthy, but “the problem is, we don’t know what makes a successful vaccination,” says Purvesh Khatri, a computational immunologist at Stanford University School of Medicine. “The immune system is very personal.”

Khatri and colleagues wondered if there was a certain immune state one needed to be in to respond effectively to the flu vaccine. So the researchers looked for a common genetic signal in blood samples from 175 people with different genetic backgrounds, from different locations in the United States, and who received the flu vaccine in different seasons. After identifying the set of predictive genes, the team used another collection of 82 samples to confirm that the crystal ball accurately predicted a strong flu response. Using such a variety of samples makes it more likely that the crystal ball will work for many different people in the real world, Khatri says.

The nine genes make proteins that have various jobs, including directing the movement of other proteins and providing structure to cells. Previous research on these genes has tied some of them to the immune system, but not others. Khatri expects the study will spur investigations into how the genes promote a successful vaccine response. And figuring out how to boost the genes may help those who don’t respond strongly to flu vaccine, he says.

As for finding a genetic crystal ball for older adults, “there’s still hope that we’ll be able to,” says team member Raphael Gottardo, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Older people are even more diverse in how they respond to the flu vaccine than younger people, he says, so it may take a larger group of samples to find a common genetic thread.

More research is also needed to learn whether the identified genes will predict an effective response for all vaccines, or just the flu, Haddad says. “There is a long way to go here.”

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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