Known as the Rosetta Stone of immunology, knowledge of these genes will help predict disease susceptibility, understand treatment failure and gauge vaccine response.
A cluster of nearly 220 genes known as the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene complex holds clues to many unsolved medical questions: why do transplants sometimes fail despite close donor-recipient matches? What makes certain people more susceptible to specific diseases? Why do vaccines protect some individuals better than others?
In search of the answers, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is heading an initiative to catalog the HLA gene complex and explore its differences among populations worldwide. Nearly $20 million over five years will go to the International Histocompatibilty Working Group (IHWG), a network of almost 200 laboratories in more than 70 countries, to set up a centralized HLA gene database and develop new and improved tools to decipher this genetic Rosetta Stone of immunology.
John A. Hansen, M.D., at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle, will lead the project. According to Dr. Hansen, head of FHCRC's Human Immunogenetics Program and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, the project could have immediate clinical benefits, for example, for finding better matches for bone marrow transplant recipients.
"But the potential impact of these new studies goes way beyond the HLA community immunogenetics," says Dr. Hansen. "This project will apply recent advances in genome technology to important questions about specific diseases and help explain how the rich genetic differences in HLA between individuals can either strengthen the immune response or open the door to autoimmune disease and infection."
The HLA gene complex, known more generally as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), is responsible for encoding proteins that stud the surface of the body's cells, marking them as our own. Anything not marked as "self
Contact: Susan Edmonds
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center