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December 14, 2021

Inside the Sound Life Project: How BRI is Studying Health to Understand Disease

BRI’s vision is to create a healthy immune system for everyone. But before we can do that, we need to answer a key question: What exactly does a healthy immune system look like?

Cate Speake

“Think about it this way: when you’re walking down the street, no two people look exactly the same. It’s the same with the immune system. There are a lot of differences, especially among healthy immune systems,” says BRI scientist Cate Speake, PhD. “We want to understand the range of what healthy immune systems look like, which changes are normal and which changes are involved in disease.”

In 2019, BRI launched the Sound Life Project, a two-year study aiming to learn more about this range of healthy immune systems. Despite the pandemic, researchers have pushed forward and are moving toward creating a highly detailed portrait of the immune system.  

“Knowing more about healthy immune systems is a baseline for everything,” Dr. Speake says. “It will give us insight into why immune system diseases happen and how to stop them.”

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A highly detailed portrait of healthy immune systems

To learn more about healthy immune systems, BRI is following 100 participants between ages 25 and 35, and 55 and 65, for two years.

“We focused on these age groups because they have fully developed immune systems, and the older age group is at the beginning of where we start seeing some aspects of immunity beginning to wane,” Dr. Speake says.

While this isn’t the first study to examine healthy immune systems, the Sound Life Project takes an especially deep dive into the immune system, collecting vast amounts of data over a long period of time. Researchers will analyze blood samples, taking a detailed look at each participant’s immune cells and how they change. This includes before and after flu vaccination and during different seasons.

“We’re collecting huge amounts of data,” Dr. Speake says. “And the immune system is very dynamic, it changes based on all kinds of different features, so taking that snapshot on a different day may give you different information.”

The research team also developed new tools that allow them to identify all of the immune cells in freshly drawn blood at a given moment.

“Studying blood often requires freezing it, which can alter some cells. But this method uses fresh blood, illuminating cells that are difficult to see after freezing,” Dr. Speake says. “This is giving us key insight into healthy immune systems for the Sound Life Project — and at the height of the pandemic, we also used this method to study blood samples from COVID-19 patients, helping us understand immune dysfunction in severe COVID-19.”

Over the course of the study, scientists are also collecting data about diet, exercise and travel, in part through an app BRI developed to collect weekly survey data from participants.

“We’re especially interested in how lifestyle and environmental factors impact the immune system as we age, which has been understudied in the past,” Dr. Speake says. “For example, we had a long period of wildfire smoke in Seattle in Fall 2020. So now we can look at blood draws during that period and see what happens in the immune system when people are exposed to this kind of environmental change.”

Understanding Health to Understand Disease

This deep dive into healthy immune systems will help scientists better understand the broad spectrum of immune health. It will help them learn exactly which differences in the immune system tip the scale toward diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, and which ones are harmless, and simply part of the natural diversity of healthy immune systems.

Ultimately, this research aims to shed light on ways to rebalance the immune system to change the course of diseases. That means targeting the immune system features that lead to disease — potentially, in ways highly tailored to an individual’s immune system.

“For example, when we're looking at our type 1 diabetes data, we’re always interested in figuring out which therapy will work best for each patient,” Dr. Speake says. “Better understanding differences in the immune system in general might help us better understand how those differences could inform more personalized treatments for immune system disease. And pave the way — across all immune system diseases — to rebalance the immune system back to health.”

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