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  • A Harvard Filipina Scientist Is Working to Make Vaccines Better for Newborns

    With her expertise in molecular biology, this Pinoy mom in the U.S. chose to work on improving vaccines.
    by Rachel Perez .
A Harvard Filipina Scientist Is Working to Make Vaccines Better for Newborns
PHOTO BY courtesy of Joann Arce
  • Vaccines have saved countless lives, yet this medical advancement has continually been placed under attack. Thankfully, scientists remain unwavering and have continued doing their research work. Among the many health professionals who have defended vaccines is Filipina scientist Joann Arce Ph.D. As a research fellow at the Infectious Diseases department at Boston Children’s Hospital and in the Pediatrics department of Harvard Medical School, she has been working to improve immunization through precision vaccination further.

    “As a mom, I want first-hand information to address questions most moms have — what is to be known in vaccines, the mechanisms of vaccines and ways on how to improve them,” Joann, who just gave birth to her third child in May 2019, told SmartParenting.com.ph via an email interview.

    Joann’s doctorate degree in molecular biology gave her the options to work on either cancer or vaccines, and she chose the latter. Now, her friends often send her articles on vaccines if they have questions or points to clarify.

    Joann has recently been working with an international consortium to define the molecular signatures of vaccination in newborns. And in March 2019, she and her colleagues from Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of British Columbia, Medical Research Council and Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, discovered a breakthrough that could fast-track and optimize the development of vaccines.

    “We have made a breakthrough in immunology that hasn’t been done yet,” Joann shared.

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    Apart from two vaccines given after birth, babies receive their next immunization only at age 3 months. These are but the first of five (including booster shots) to help their immune systems produce antibodies to fight a handful of diseases such as whooping cough and diphtheria. The first of two doses of the measles vaccines are given to babies aged 6 months at the earliest. (Click here to see kids’ complete immunization chart.)


    While babies younger than age 2 receive most of the vaccines given globally, these kids, including newborns or babies ages zero to 3 months, are still at the highest risk of suffering and dying from infection. Joann and her colleagues are working on reducing that risk.

    Joann with Dr. Ofer Levy, director of the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Joann Arce

    Their study, published in Nature Communications, has “pioneered a technique to get huge amounts of data from a tiny amount of newborn blood,” and it can measure all the cells and molecules that may affect a person's health for a lifetime.

    According to the press release, their work profiled molecular changes in the first week of newborn life, including what genes are turned on, what proteins are being made and what metabolites are changing. It establishes a common developmental pathway for the first week of a newborn’s life, providing a baseline to further understand newborn health and, in particular, the impacts of vaccines on newborns.

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    It’s not an alternative to vaccines, but it will help experts “do a faster and better approach in designing vaccines,” says Joann, who is one of the co-first authors of this study and manage the data management core for the consortium.

    Right now, vaccines take a long time in development because it is done via a trial-and-error process. She continues, “We are hoping to move towards precision vaccination to better protect down to groups of individual, especially those who need special care such as newborns, elderly and expectant mothers,” she shared.

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    When they're not working, Joann and her husband Carlo remain true to their Filipino roots by making sure to expose their older kids (and soon their newborn) to Filipino food and language. “We want our kids to know that the Philippines is very special to us and is home for us,” she said. Even with full-time careers, they get to pick up their kids from school and go to the playground or the library without yayas, thanks to their flexible schedules. Luckily, their kids also get to experience the Filipino culture — what Joann misses the most about being raised in her home country — when their relatives from the Philippines visit them.

    Joane, with kids Arabella, 4, and Travis, 6, and husband Carlo. Not in photo is their new baby who was born in May 2019
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Joan Arce

    Many Filipino families who live outside of the country can attest about the many differences between raising kids in the Philippines and the U.S., as Joann shared with Smart Parenting. But wherever you plant your roots as a family, the goal remains the same. “We make sure that we are there for our kids’ milestones,” she said. Equally, all parents want to protect their children.

    “Protection is better than cure,” Joann stressed. In 2018 and up to now, both the Philippines and the U.S. had a rising number of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases. It didn’t matter that all myths, misconceptions, and misinformation about vaccines had long been debunked by science and proven after years of research.

    Joann and her colleagues may be working to improve vaccine development, but it doesn’t mean the ones approved and available now are any less effective. “Vaccines have been well studied and assessed on their safety and effectiveness,” Joann explained. “We need to get vaccinated not only to protect ourselves but also for our loved ones who cannot have these vaccines such as those immuno-compromised or in immunotherapy,” she stressed. Vaccines aren’t just for the benefit of one, but for the many, including newborns.

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