Many factors can play a role in determining the effectiveness of vaccines, including the interplay between genomics, epigenetics, and the microbiome. The study of how these factors influence how a person develops immunity from a vaccination is called Vaccinomics, and may help revolutionize our approach to this approach to population-based health.
Twin studies have shown that the genetic contribution to vaccine response can be as high as 90%. Which means genes are certainly key, and also there are other factors involved. But how to create more personalized recommendations and protocols is an elusive target. Genomics may be able to change that.
To date, the vaccines most studied include measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, influenza and anthrax. Many locations on the HLA genes, in addition to genes involved in cytokine and innate immunity pathways, are being shown to impact the antibody response to some of these vaccines. While the research is still early, we may soon be able to start applying some of this knowledge to provide more personalized guidance (at least to some extent) for vaccinations. Many pharmaceutical companies are already using this research to develop vaccines that take into account this inter-individual variation to develop better vaccines.
In parallel, another area of genomics receiving more attention is the study of adverse effects of vaccines called Adversomics. While some rare genetic mutations, such as SCN1, have been identified as being strongly related to risk of developing seizures after DPT or DPT/IPV/Hib vaccines, most adverse events do not have a single causative gene. Research is focusing much attention at identifying more common gene SNPs that may alter a person’s response and increase the risk of an adverse event. Polymorphisms in genes encoding for MTHFR and many of the interleukins are showing potential links.
Another area of research is in how the adjuvants or preservatives present in vaccines can potentially create an adverse reaction. Some of the more common chemicals used in vaccines include formaldehyde, aluminum, glutaldehyde and mercury. All of these can stimulate the immune system, directly or indirectly through oxidative stress. They are also potential toxins. It is conceivable that if a person has gene SNPs that impair metabolism and elimination of these chemicals, and their system gets overwhelmed more easily, levels of these chemicals may become toxic – potentially adding to the risk of adverse events.
But, as we know from established research in other areas of genomics, genes don’t exist or function in isolation. And while each gene SNP may contribute a small amount to an overall effect, often it is the additive effect of multiple gene SNPs working in concert that can create a perfect storm. This has been well documented, especially in nutritional genomics and is also being seen in pharmacogenomics.
Indeed, some early studies in Adversomics are finding that a polygenic approach may provide better information than looking at single genes. In other words, looking at multiple genes involved in multiple biological networks or systems that may not seem to be directly connected at first glance. One example is that of vitamin A. Vitamin A forms a critical complex called the Retinoid-X-Receptor (RXR), which plays a role in many gene-gene interactions, including those involved in vitamin D metabolism as well as the immune system. SNPs in genes involved in vitamin A metabolism and formation of the RXR may very well be part of this equation.
Genoma International uses this more advanced polygenic approach in our genomic testing, and continues to update the reports regularly to include new information as the science advances. You can find many of these genes discussed in this article in the Ultimate Wellness Genomic Test.