1. Summarize the article in one sentence.
Possible student response: For people 35 and under, measuring the activity of certain genes can predict how well flu vaccines will work.
2. Explain what the author means by a genetic “crystal ball.” How does the crystal ball work and what group of people does it work for?
Possible student response: The genetic “crystal ball” is a metaphor for a set of nine genes that researchers in a recent study associated with a strong immune response to flu vaccines in people age 35 and under. When these genes were identified as highly active in individuals before a flu vaccination was given, high levels of antibodies were produced after the vaccination was administered. In other words, these genes act like a “crystal ball” because they can predict how well these individuals’ immune systems will respond to flu vaccines.
3. What research question did computational immunologist Purvesh Khatri and his colleagues explore? How did they go about answering it in their study?
Possible student response: Purvesh Khatri and his colleagues wondered if a specific immune state was associated with an effective response to flu vaccines. They 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 flu vaccines in different seasons. After identifying the set of predictive genes, the team used another collection of 82 samples to confirm that those genes accurately predicted a strong flu response.
4. What result did researchers find when they tried to identify a similar set of genes in people age 60 and older? Why is it more difficult to predict the response of older people to the flu vaccine? How could the design of a new study solve this difficulty?
Possible student response: The researchers tried but failed to identify a similar set of predictive genes for people who were age 60 or older. Older people are even more diverse in how they respond to flu vaccines than younger people. The article suggests it may take a larger number of samples to identify genes in older people that are linked to a strong immune response.
5. Why has it been difficult to predict the success of a flu vaccination?
Possible student response: Individuals and certain groups of individuals have unique responses to flu vaccinations. Scientists currently do not have a detailed understanding of what factors ensure that a person will have a strong immune response to a vaccine. There are many different strains of flu virus, each requiring a separate vaccine. Companies that make flu vaccines must predict up to a year in advance what three or four flu strains will likely be circulating the following flu season and mass produce vaccines for the right strains. Sometimes these predicted vaccines are widely effective and sometimes they are not.
6. Were all nine genes previously linked to immune function? What other roles do these genes play in the body?
Possible student response: Some of the genes were already known to be related to the immune system, but others were not. The nine genes code for proteins that have various jobs, including directing the movement of other proteins and providing structure to cells.
7. In what ways can the results of this study benefit future studies in immunology?
Possible student response: (1) Scientists can now study how those nine genes promote a strong immune response. (2) The activity of those nine genes can be used to predict how well a flu vaccine might work for a specific person. (3) Researchers might find ways to boost the activity of those nine genes to provoke a stronger immune response in people for whom the flu vaccine would otherwise not be very effective.
8. Approximately how many flu illnesses did vaccination prevent during the 2015–2016 season?
Possible student response: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that vaccination prevented 5.1 million flu illnesses in the 2015–2016 season.
9. Did particular flu strains that were vaccinated for affect the results of the study? Would the approach used in this study work for vaccines for other viruses?
Possible student response: The same nine genes predicted whether people age 35 or younger would produce high levels of antibodies in response to all flu vaccines tested. It is possible that this study’s approach would work for vaccines against different viruses, but the scientists only tested people’s responses to flu vaccines. More research is required to answer that question.
10. Article-based opinion question: Are you planning to get the flu vaccination this year? Why or why not?
Possible student response: Yes, I plan to get the flu vaccine this year — it could potentially help protect me against the most probable strains of the flu virus. No, as the article suggests, the flu vaccine doesn’t produce a high immune response for everyone who gets the vaccine. So, it might not work well for me.