University of Michigan receives $6.7M grant to study flu immunity in children

An adult checks the temperature on a thermometer while placing a hand on a young child's head. The child is wrapped in a blanket and laying on a couch.

No parent wants to see their baby sick. But a child's first exposure to influenza is actually very important—it can impact their natural protection against future flu viruses.

Aubree GordonThis process, called imprinting, in which our bodies create antibodies the first time we get the flu that influence our immune response to future flu viruses, has long interested University of Michigan infectious disease researcher Aubree Gordon, who has spent years studying the dynamics of flu transmission and immunity.

Now, Gordon, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at Michigan Public Health, has been awarded a $6.7 million five-year grant to advance her innovative research into influenza immunity development among children. Flu Lab, an organization that supports efforts to advance innovative solutions to persistent problems in the prevention and treatment of influenza, has funded the grant for Gordon's FluGuardians: Michigan Influenza Immunity Cohort through the end of 2028. 

"This study represents a monumental step toward understanding how early influenza exposure—whether through infection or vaccination—shapes the immune systems of children in the long term," said Gordon, who is also principal investigator at the University of Michigan Biosciences Initiative's Michigan Center for Infectious Disease Threats. "We're immensely grateful to Flu Lab for supporting research that has the potential to transform our approach to influenza prevention and immunity."

University of Michigan's Research Foundations Partnerships Office, launched in 2023, played a critical role in helping to secure funding for this project. 

Gordon and her research team will focus on the comprehensive study of flu immunity development, from infancy through childhood. The ambitious project aims to enroll up to 850 infants in Ann Arbor within six weeks of birth, with the goal of closely following their immune responses to both influenza infection and vaccination.

The FluGuardians study is leveraging a Michigan Medicine-led food allergy cohort study, the Michigan Sibling Immunity Birth Study, which is also enrolling participants this year. With 680 to 765 healthy children anticipated to participate in both studies, the research will not only investigate natural infection and vaccine-imprinted immune responses but also examine the broader immunological landscape, including innate immunity.

The study's techniques include standard serological testing, systems serology using Luminex technology, and advanced machine learning methods to analyze the complex data. Supplementing Gordon's established Dissection of Influenza Vaccination and Infection for Childhood Immunity Consortium study—conducted in partnership with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital—the research will explore how initial exposures shape B and T cell responses, potentially leading to recommendations for tailoring immunizations in children.

"The community in Ann Arbor, known for its high infant influenza vaccination rates and enthusiastic participation in research studies, offers a prime setting for this cohort study," Gordon said. "Our connection with the local population, combined with their consistent engagement, provides a unique opportunity to address important questions about influenza immunity."

The findings from the study are expected to not only contribute significantly to the field of influenza research but also to inform strategies for the development and evaluation of next-generation and universal flu vaccines.

What Is Imprinting?

The very first flu virus you encounter can have a long-lasting influence on how your immune system responds to flu viruses in the future. Through a process called imprinting, our bodies create antibodies the first time we get the flu, and researchers have found that these antibodies stick with us for the rest of our lives. 

"Every time we encounter a flu virus with similarities, our immune system tends to rely on past responses rather than creating a new one," Gordon said. "While this can sometimes be effective, other times it can lead to a less optimal response, making it harder to fight off new strains. For example, due to imprinting, your immune system might use old tactics to fight off a virus, which might not be perfectly suited to fighting the new virus." 

In addition, there is some evidence that this first exposure to the flu may protect you against severe infection from novel flu viruses, like H5N1, in the event of a pandemic. But how this occurs is not known.


Andrea LaFerleAndrea LaFerle

Director of Public Relations and Marketing
University of Michigan School of Public Health