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BIOLOGY
Columns
Opinion articles written in the style of their author. These texts are to be based on verified facts and must be respectful towards people, even though their actions may be criticized. All opinion articles written by individuals from outside the staff of EL PAÍS shall feature, along with the author’s name (regardless of their greater or lesser renown), a footer stating their office, academic title, political affiliation (if any) and main occupation, or the occupation related to the topic being assessed

A library of human defenses

Sick of genomes, proteomes and microbiomes? Get ready: the Human Immunome Project is coming

Human Immunome Project
HeLa cells for immunology research.Wikimedia Commons
Javier Sampedro

There is a dominant trend in biology for the elaboration of catalogs: genome, proteome, exome, metabolome, microbiome. The suffix ome denotes that you settle for the whole, all the genes, all the proteins and whatever else it takes. Perhaps the philosophical epitome was reached in the first decade of this century with project behaviorome, which sought to compile a census of possible human behaviors. As far as I know, it never got off the ground. The blame for this librarian zeal surely lies with Charles Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish naturalist who devoted his life to making an inventory of all known living things in his time. But today, we know that biological catalogs are extremely useful in a science dominated by the exuberant complexity of the living world, and the most current such initiative will focus on our defenses.

The Human Immunome Project (HIP) was founded at a scientific congress in La Jolla, California, and its creators include some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms, universities and government agencies, including the J. Craig Venter Institute and Spanish foundations such as ISGlobal and La Caixa. This year, they will begin collecting immunological data from hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world, by looking at thousands of variables in their blood and tissue samples. Maybe from your blood and tissues, distant reader.

The resulting database will be available to all researchers, and will hopefully clarify which immunological peculiarities explain our health or lack thereof. It will be valuable data for the medicine of the immediate future, and even for the vaccines and drugs of the present. At the moment, it has a meager funding of $5 million a year, but aims to add two or three zeros to that figure when its results start to shine. Pfizer and Moderna, the two corporate stars of anti-Covid vaccines, are in the consortium, along with AstraZeneca, GSK, Janssen and Novavax. That’s pretty much the who’s-who of Big Pharma, folks.

In fact, the immune system is essential to a thousand factors that determine our life and death: the diseases we contract, the way we age, how many years we live. No one has ever doubted the need to investigate it in depth, but its gigantic complexity has only allowed us to access the general principles of its functioning. The main one is its generative character, that is, its capacity to respond to environmental situations it has never faced before. It is a true prodigy of biological evolution — the Messi of genetics.

Precisely due to their generative nature, however, it is virtually impossible to catalog molecular creations. We know how this fractal and inexhaustible range of antibodies is generated, yes, but, in matters of health and human biology, the devil is in the details. Why do 10% of people fail to respond to the hepatitis B vaccine? And why does it work so well in the remaining 90%? Here it is not enough to look at one gene or a couple of proteins. You have to look at all of them and enlist artificial intelligence to lend a hand.

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