Our society gets older, people live longer. The price we pay: infectious diseases can easier overcome the immune system. Like all organs, the immune system does not function flawlessly in old age. A new collaboration of university and non-university research institutes and two companies is investigating why our immune defence is getting weaker when as we become old. The project "GERONTOSHIELD", funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), has received 2.6 Million Euro funding for the next three years. "GERONTOSHIELD" is part of the BMBF programme "Systems biology for better health in old age - GerontoSys2" that promotes systems biological approaches to find out the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for ageing. The kick off meeting of the new research network took place at the German Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig, Germany, on March 31st and April 1st, 2011.

A better understanding and new approaches to optimize therapies for the elderly in the future is the goal of the scientific partners. The scientific coordination is located at the department of "Vaccinology and Applied Microbiology", headed by Professor Carlos A. Guzmán, at the HZI in Braunschweig.

The immune system has to deal with a loss of cells in old age. Furthermore, the remaining cells react less efficiently to infections or vaccinations. Finally, most drugs are optimized for young adults. "Every tenth person over 65 dies due to the flu," says project coordinator Professor Carlos A. Guzmán. "We still know too little about which changes occur in an ageing immune system." Thus, it is necessary to optimize existing therapies and to develop new approaches to treat diseases in the elderly, says Guzmán.

Here, adjuvants play an important role, chemical compounds that boost the immune system and improve the efficiency of a vaccination. Guzmán and his group want to understand how young and old immune systems react to those adjuvants. "In the end, this knowledge would help to develop new vaccination strategies that are specifically tailored to old people," says Guzmán.

"GERONTOSHIELD" seeks the holistic understanding of these processes at the meeting point of two disciplines: biology and mathematics. On the one hand, researchers investigate how immune responses in young and old mice differ from each other. The results are then transferred onto human cells. Finally, systems biologists generate mathematical models from these data. With these tools, the researchers would like to comprehend what happens in an old organism to identify the underlying mechanisms responsible for altered responses in the elderly. This would enable the development of personalized strategies for the aging population.

"We also seek to identify risk markers predicting increased susceptibility for infectious diseases in the elderly," says Professor Michael Meyer-Hermann, head of the department "Systems Immunology" and co-coordinator of the project. These markers would allow detecting individuals or patients with a high risk for severe disease, thereby enabling to earmark them for specifically tailored therapies for this high risk group, says Meyer-Hermann.

Both researchers are convinced that "GERONTOSHIELD" can significantly contribute to better understanding of the ageing immune system and thus benefit the medical care of elderly people in the future.


GERONTOSHIELD is part of the programme "Systems biology for a better health in old age" by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF). The BMBF is funding the projects "GerontoSys" and "GerontoSys2" to promote research on cellular and molecular processes during ageing. Furthermore, promoting junior researchers in the field of systems biological research in ageing is an important goal.

Dr. Bastian Dornbach
Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

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