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Dal infectious disease doc investigates the body's immune clock

Posted by Allison Gerrard on March 23, 2016 in News
Dr. Lisa Barrett (left), assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. (Nick Pearce photo)
Dr. Lisa Barrett (left), assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. (Nick Pearce photo)

Every day, our immune system successfully combats pathogens that can make us sick. But as we age, we’re less able to fight off infection. This decreased immunity is referred to as immune aging.

“Older people are often more susceptible to infections and can exhibit poor immune responses to vaccines, says Dr. Lisa Barrett, a viral immunologist and an assistant professor in Dalhousie Medical School’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “We’re trying to figure out why; we’re looking at the impact chronological aging has on the aging of our immune system.”

Infections age the immune system

“We also want to know how infections age us,” says Dr. Barrett, who leads a team of researchers at the Dalhousie-based Senescence Aging Infection & Immunity Laboratory.

Chronic illnesses such as hepatitis C and HIV seem to mature the immune system faster than normal for some reason.

“When you have a chronic infection like HIV, your white blood cells – the cells of the immune system that protect you from infection – don’t work as well,” explains Dr. Barrett. “In my infectious diseases clinic at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, I see 40-year-olds with the same immune response I’d expect to see in an 80-year-old.”

The impaired immunity that happens during chronic infection has been offered as a reason for poor responses to vaccines.

“If we can better understand the mechanisms that cause the gradual deterioration of our immunity due to chronic viral infection and chronological aging, we can enhance vaccine design, improve health, and reduce infection-related deaths.”

New federal funding advances immunity research

To advance her team’s research, Dr. Barrett approached the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). She was awarded a John R. Evan Leaders Fund (JELF) to acquire new lab equipment.

'The CFI JELF award is an important part of moving our research program forward,” says Dr. Barrett. “It provides us with cutting-edge infrastructure that will help us understand why some types of infections persist, as well as why the immune system starts to fail as we get older.”

Some of the equipment will be used to establish an extensive biobank for chronic viral infection in Atlantic Canada – the only one of its kind in the region.

“You’re only as old as your immune system,” says Dr. Barrett. “Our goal is to help improve Canadians’ quality of life as they age, and help those who live with long-term, chronic infections.”