“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.”