July 31, 2002 - Comments on NIH/CSR Proposal for New Immunology Study Sections

The American Society for Microbiology has carefully reviewed the Proposal for new Immunology Study Sections (IMM) as part of IRG 10.Clearly a good deal of thought and effort were put into this proposal for restructuring, and it has many positive aspects, particularly in the ordering and consolidating of knowledge in the area of innate immunity and inflammation, Study Section 1.However, the members of our Society have two major concerns.

  1. There is a strong feeling that IMM Study Section 2, "Immunity and Host Defense" will not be able to adequately review applications that pertain to specific microbes as described in bullets #1, #4, and #5. The specific concerns are:

    a) the portion of bullet #1 dealing with "…acquired host immune responses to specific pathogenic organisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites;"

    b) the portion of bullet #4 dealing with"…basic mechanisms of immune responses to limit pathogen invasion and toxicity, and development of animal models of potential bioterrorism agents."

    c) the portion of bullet #5 dealing with "…specific antigens, attenuated microorganisms, and recombinant viral and bacterial vectors" as strategies to develop effective vaccines.

The difficulty we perceive is that a panel of immunologists will not have a sufficient number of people with the requisite expertise to review a variety of grants that encompass properties of many different microorganisms.Each pathogen has a unique constellation of offensive and defensive weapons to overcome host defenses.While some degree of generalization about pathogenic strategies is possible, i.e., toxins, capsules, antigenic variation, intracellular parasitism, etc., in actual fact these generalizations are not particularly helpful at the level of understanding the nature of the protective host response or in developing vaccines.There is in most cases a robust, extensive, and detailed literature on the microbial antigens and extracellular products associated with each individual microbe, as well as the accepted or controversial animal models.Unfamiliarity with this literature will lead to an inadequate review of the grant proposal.We feel it is unlikely that a panel composed primarily of immunologists, which is also considering the other topics in Study Section 2, will have this breadth and depth of knowledge about the microbes.Frequently research oriented physicians certified in infectious diseases are needed to render opinions about the validity of animal models and microbial strains being used, as well as the importance of particular areas of research as they pertain to world health problems, and this type of expertise is not likely to be found in the abundance needed on an immunology panel.A difficulty with assessing the current proposal for IMM is that many grants in the areas noted above, namely host responses to specific microbes, with the intention of developing vaccines or of understanding basic host defense mechanisms to that microbe, will presumably also fit under IRG 11 (Infectious Diseases and Microbiology).The major area of uncertainty is the interface between IRG10 and IRG11.As a proposal for Study Sections in IRG11 is not yet formulated, it is difficult at this time to assess whether in to, investigators will have more options to fit the nuances of their proposals, or whether arbitrary assignment to an Immunology versus an Infectious Diseases and Microbiology study section will result in less competent reviews.

Proposal: for Study Section 2: We suggest that the IMM Study Section eliminate from its portfolio consideration of "acquired host responses to specific pathogenic organisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites" as described in bullet #1, but confine itself to the innate immune responses, the genetic factors that predispose to infection, and effects of adjuvants.Similarly, in bullet #4, we suggest eliminating purview over "acquired immune responses", while retaining the innate immune responses.Finally, in bullet #5, we suggest dropping the words "specific antigens," "attenuated microorganisms" and "recombinant viral and bacterial vectors".Research on DNA vaccines, agents that enhance immune responses and cross-protective components, fit well with the mission of IMM of developing generalized strategies for host defense that will be protective against many classes of microbes.Under the IHD Study Section topic 'Shared interests within the IMM IRG' we recommend deleting bullet #1.Under shared interest outside the IMM IRG we recommend deleting the last sentence of bullet #1, "Applications dealing with host-pathogen responses should be assigned to IHD if the application focuses primarily on the host immune responses or host-pathogen interactions."We do not think the immunology study section should tackle this field as detailed above.

There is also significant sentiment to keep a Vaccine Study Section, but we believe this would fit best under IRG11, with immunologists invited to be on these panels.

  1. There is concern about placement of the topic of 'autoimmunity'.We feel that when autoimmunity is combined with hypersensitivity (presently in Study Section 5), it suffers.Allergy is such a huge problem both scientifically and clinically that it invariably overshadows autoimmune disease in the composition and orientation of the study section.The central problem of autoimmunity is basic, not clinical.We believe it would be better situated in Study Section 6, with the topic of "tolerance."

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments and your attention to our concerns.