Research at the MGH is interwoven throughout more than 30 departments, centers and units and is conducted with the support and guidance of the MGH Research Institute. The Research Roundup is a monthly series highlighting studies, news and events.

Study identifies how mothers transfer immunity from infectious disease to their children

While vaccines have been successful in reducing the spread of infectious diseases across the globe, they have limited effectiveness in protecting newborn infants, whose immune systems are not developed enough to vaccinate safely.

Some protection from infectious disease is transferred between mother to child in utero, though it has not been clear how this process works. A study based at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard has identified how a pregnant woman’s vaccine-induced immunity is transferred to her child, which could help in developing more effective maternal vaccines.

“Newborns arrive into the world on the first day of life with brand-new immune systems that need to learn to cope with both helpful and harmful microbes in their environment,” says Galit Alter, PhD, of the Ragon Institute and co-senior author of the study. “To help the newborn immune system learn to discriminate between friend and foe, mothers transfer antibodies to their infants via the placenta. The rules by which the placenta performs this essential function have been unknown, but, if decoded, could hold the key to generating more powerful vaccines to protect these most precious patients.”

While maternal antibodies against some diseases – such as measles – can be transferred from mother to infant, providing some protection until the child is old enough for individual vaccination, antibodies to other serious diseases such as polio are less efficiently transferred.

Researchers found that the placenta sifts out and delivers antibodies that activate natural killer (NK) cells. While several important immune cells are too immature in newborns to provide effective protection, NK cells are among the most abundant and functional immune cells during the first days of life.

It may be possible to improve immune protection for infants by developing new vaccines for mothers that promote the development of antibodies that activate these NK cells.

Where you live affects your heart health

An MGH research team has identified the biological process through which individuals of lower socioeconomic status have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

A team led by Ahmed Tawakol, MD, director of Nuclear Cardiology in the MGH Division of Cardiology, and Katrina Armstrong, MD, chief of the MGH Department of Medicine, found that individuals from neighborhoods with lower household incomes or higher crime rates had higher rates of activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain activated in response to stress), increased immune cell production and more arterial inflammation. These factors significantly increased their risk of a heart attack, unstable angina, cardiac failure or death in the four years after the study.

It may be possible to reduce these risks through lifestyle-based interventions such as sufficient sleep, exercise and meditation, using statins to reduce inflammation in the arteries and developing new drugs that target the pathway between the amygdala and the arteries, the researchers said.

“These results provide further support for considering socioeconomic status when assessing an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease and suggest new approaches to helping reduce cardiovascular risk among those patients,” says Tawakol.

Read more articles from the 07/12/19 Hotline issue.