USC Investigators Lead International Call for Increased Diversity in Immunogenomics

For commentary published in Nature Methods, USC School of Pharmacy scientists united researchers worldwide to promote inclusivity in immunology studies.

Limiting immunogenomics studies to people of European ancestry restricts the ability to identify variations in human adaptive immune responses across populations. Thus, expanding the diversity of those studied is vital to advancing the frontiers of human immunology, according to USC-led commentary in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Methods, published May 17.

“We need to engage and study diverse populations—this is how we can understand the immune system and deliver effective therapies,” says co-author Serghei Mangul, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy. “Current databases are ill-equipped to serve non-European populations and thus we should move the research to diverse populations. Without doing that we cannot serve underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”

For example, more than three-quarters of individuals included in genome-wide association studies reported through January 2019 were of European descent, despite the fact that Asian populations account for 59.5% of the world’s population.

Even when data from under-represented groups is available, researchers tend to exclude data from minority groups when conducting statistical analyses due to concerns about statistical significance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the diversity of immune response around the globe. With vaccine trials and programs underway worldwide, scientists have immediate opportunities to investigate the role of genetic factors in vaccine-mediated immune responses.

“For the data to be meaningful, it needs to come from all representative populations,” says co-author Houda Alachkar, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy. “This is absolutely crucial for the implementation of research findings and the development of therapeutic approaches that are generalizable to all patients.”

Global collaboration

While engaging fellow researchers to participate in the commentary, first author Kerui Peng, graduate research scholar at the USC School of Pharmacy, says she was gratified by the immediate and overwhelming response. The authors—from 17 regions and countries, including the United States, Canada, Norway, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, South Africa, Nigeria, Chile, Peru, China, Japan, Taiwan and French Polynesia—are also enthusiastic about future collaborations, Peng adds.

“In healthcare, significant attention has been drawn to reduce health disparities and to promote health equity,” she notes. “Research in diverse populations advances healthcare.”

The eclectic group—with expertise in biomedical and translational research, population and public health genetics, health disparities, computational biology and immunogenomics—has also formed an international network to implement actions discussed in the commentary.

“This work is a manifesto of a new consortium consisting of a diverse group of scientists working on various immunogenomics problems,” says Yana Safonova, postdoctoral research scholar at UC San Diego and incoming assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. “The mission of this consortium is to promote extending European-focused immunology studies to other ethnicities and collecting ethnicity-specific genomics variations of immune genes.”

“Immune genes are much more variable than other genes of the human genome and variations in these genes can be associated with successes and failures of immune responses to diseases and vaccines,” Safonova adds. “Thus, the transition to ethnicity-based immunology studies is critically important for the success of the worldwide vaccination against COVID-19.”

About the Study

Additional leading authors included Cathrine Scheepers of University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Corey T. Watson of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Louisville, Kentucky and Gunilla B. Karlsson Hedestam of the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Read the full article here.