Taming vaccine data: Joann Arce, PhD

Joann Arce portrait
Joann Arce, PhD, had job offers in a variety of fields. But as a parent, the Precision Vaccines Program intrigued her most.

Part of an ongoing series profiling researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Joann Arce, PhD, is a data tamer — corralling and wrangling vast quantities of data to extract insights on how our immune systems react to vaccines and infections. Her work is paving a path toward smarter, more potent vaccines.

As lead of data management and analysis for the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s, Arce wields several superpowers: bioinformatics and “big data;” systems biology, or analysis of whole biological systems; and the burgeoning science of “omics,” which catalogs the different molecules produced by cells or organisms.

With these abilities, Arce had offers for postdoctoral fellowships in a variety of fields. But as a parent, the Precision Vaccines Program intrigued her most.

“I had a 6-month-old and questions about vaccines — when should we get them? What type? Should we wait?” Arce says. “I decided to delve in and learn more.”

Answering questions about vaccines with ‘omics’

Growing up in the Philippines, Arce was pushed to be a physician. But science was her real love, fueled in part by a children’s science TV series, Sine’skwela.

“At 18, I told my dad I didn’t want to be a physician,” she says. Instead, she got a scholarship to study biology and biochemistry in Hawaii, at Brigham Young University. “Performing experiments excited me — I could figure out how to look for answers to my own questions,” she says.

I had a 6-month-old and questions about vaccines — when should we get them? What type? Should we wait? I decided to delve in and learn more.”

In the Precision Vaccines Program, some of Arce’s first projects focused on newborns’ immune systems, working with the international EPIC consortium. She used systems biology to track changes in newborns’ blood during their first week of life and analyzed newborns’ immune responses to the BCG vaccine, an old tuberculosis vaccine that, mysteriously, seems to protect against infections beyond TB.

Arce is excited about the potential these studies hold for developing more vaccines that work in newborns, who are especially vulnerable to infections.

When COVID-19 research becomes personal

In 2020, Arce found herself at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the lead for a national CDC-sponsored study called IMPACC, she painstakingly analyzed data from more than 100,000 samples from hospitalized patients. Her work is shedding light on how people who die from COVID-19 differ from survivors.

“In the middle of this, I lost my dad to COVID-19,” Arce relates. “I had to present my results to National Institutes of Health officials the day after my dad passed away. Six weeks later, I lost my mother to cancer. It was tough to be a scientist and a mom dealing with all this. But I put myself in the position of the people we were studying: they were someone’s parents, siblings, and children — just like mine.”

Arce believes that the study’s findings, recently published, will help clinicians better predict how patients with COVID-19 will do in the hospital, based on markers in their nasal, blood, or airway samples.

New resources, new questions

Arce recently led the creation of a first-of-its kind public database, the Immune Signatures Data Resource. Covering 24 different vaccines, it has powered several international studies and will enable scientists to ask questions like, “Why does the yellow fever vaccine require just one dose, while other vaccines require boosters?” or “How does the TB vaccine protect against other infections?”

To create this resource, Arce had to wrangle data from all over the world, some of it from different eras and gathered with older research tools. At times, she had to track down scientists and ask for data not included in their published papers.

Arce has more questions she’d like to answer: Why do some people develop myocarditis after COVID-19 vaccination? Could markers in their blood predict their risk? She recently developed a cloud computing platform, ImmuneVISTA, to help.

“Many people are afraid to be vaccinated,” she says. “We can’t just shove these questions under the rug. It’s people’s own health, and our responsibility to educate them. The information could save their lives.”

Read more profiles of Boston Children’s researchers

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