Unravelling the mysteries of our immune system, millions of molecule sequences at a time.

Simon Fraser University

Many academic labs, biomedical research institutions, and pharmaceutical companies are working hard to better understand infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders such as AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Five to six years ago, researchers were able to sequence hundreds of immune-system molecules (like antibodies) in the human body. Today they can sequence tens of millions.

The data from this next-generation “deep sequencing” is making the human immune system less of a black box as it reveals the construction of the immune system along with the how, why, and when our body responds to various diseases. This is critical for studying autoimmune diseases and developing medical techniques that augment or use our immune system such as vaccines, therapeutic antibodies, and cancer immunotherapies, to name a few. However, storing, organizing, and analyzing these data has become a rapidly escalating big-data challenge.

A secure distributed database, iReceptor enables researchers to share and analyze huge datasets.

Metadata and security

To facilitate this study of immunogenetics, researchers at Simon Fraser University have created a Research Software Platform called iReceptor. A secure, distributed database, iReceptor enables researchers to share and analyze huge datasets. What makes this platform particularly exciting is its ability to include metadata (such as gender, ethnicity, treatment, and outcome), allowing researchers to understand which conditions activate or suppress various immune system genes.

To ensure patient privacy while maximizing research utility, iReceptor supports multiple levels of data access. It allows data stewards at each participating lab, institution, or company to assign access controls to individual data in order to tightly control confidentiality, based on local ethics and confidentiality agreements.

Researchers benefit tremendously from the distributed structure that iReceptor provides. Previously, privacy concerns around patient data meant that most immunogenetic research data were not tagged with metadata, requiring a painstakingly slow understanding of medical context – when it was even possible. Researchers were also hampered by the lack of meaningful sample sizes.

Because iReceptor pools scarce data in a secure way, research from multiple angles of a specific condition can illuminate immune system failures, pointing to clinical treatments for rare conditions as well as commonly occurring diseases.

Canadian content

Leading the charge in creating this publicly accessible database are researchers at Simon Fraser University, with colleagues at the University of Toronto and the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre playing an important role in quality testing. The iReceptor team is also working to integrate the system with international efforts, such as VDJServer at University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, and NIH genomic repositories such as dbGap and SRA. This will not only increase sample sizes but will also help the worldwide immunogenetics community in their pursuit of new vaccines, therapeutic antibodies, and cancer treatments.

In addition to the iReceptor Platform itself, four reusable software Services used within it have been made available to other researchers via the CANARIE Software Registry, including its database model and web interface. Other researchers may reuse these software tools in their pursuit of new public health discoveries.

Funding for the development of iReceptor was provided through CANARIE’s Research Software Program.