Bioinformatics Research team from left to right Xenia Georgio James Robinson Steven Marsh Gabriel Benitez Richard Natarajan and Dominic Barker

An Important HLA Gene Database Update (IPD-IMGT/HLA) Gathers Over 150 Citations in Six Months

August 24, 2023

Anthony Nolan has changed the landscape of blood cancer treatments in many ways over the years. Breakthrough after breakthrough has been produced in our laboratories thanks to the passionate work of our scientists. We’ve helped to advance stem cell transplants from being a barely understood fringe treatment, to a gold standard of care for people with blood cancers.

The impact our team of researchers have on stem cell transplants worldwide can’t be understated!

A big part of Anthony Nolan’s influence on transplant science has been the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database. Started in 1998 by Professor Steven Marsh and Dr James Robinson, it is the world-leading resource for anyone who needs up-to-date information about the HLA genes. The Database is managed by a team of only five people at Anthony Nolan, and is hosted by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in a collaboration lasting nearly 30 years.

The HLA genes and transplant science 

When we match our patients and donors together for stem cell transplants, their HLA genes are a really important factor in making that match as strong as possible!

The HLA genes are absolutely crucial in how the immune system functions, and an HLA mismatch can cause the immune system to start attacking friendly cells.

It can be hard to find a perfect HLA match because HLA are the most varied genes in all of our DNA…

Gene variety

Some genes are very variable. This means that there are lots of different ‘versions’ of the same gene that can be very slightly different. One kind of gene variability that’s really important is in the blood group gene (called the ABO gene). The different versions of the ABO gene that you’ve inherited from your parents will determine what blood group you are!

When it comes to variable genes, HLA is the star… it’s the most variable area of our entire DNA. The reason for this is that the more versions of HLA that a species has, the more that it will be able to fight off different kinds of infections – so it is an evolutionary advantage to have lots of HLA variation.

While this variety is vital for helping us fight off infections, it also makes it harder to find two people with closely matched HLA types.

To give you an example of just how many HLA variations there are, the HLA-B gene alone (one of six HLA genes we use to match patients with donors) currently has 9,411 discovered variations, making it the most varied human gene we’ve ever found.

New technologies have helped researchers find new variants of the HLA genes a lot faster! The IPD-IMGT/HLA Database currently contains many tens of thousands of different versions of the HLA genes, and is growing faster every year.

The IPD-IMGT/HLA Database

The more HLA variants we know of, the more accurate we can be in matching patients with donors, helping to improve the effectiveness of stem cell transplants.

This is why the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is so important for the continuation of Anthony Nolan’s work – it is a repository of all our gathered knowledge about the many thousands of different varieties of the HLA genes.

This helps scientists around the world find more accurate HLA matches for all different kinds of transplants – it’s not just haematopoietic cell transplants where HLA matching is important!

The IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is not to be confused with Anthony Nolan’s stem cell register. The IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is a collection of all the known variations of HLA genes, whereas the Anthony Nolan stem cell register stores individual donor’s HLA types.

With almost a million page views every year, the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is in high demand. In the words of lead bioinformatician for the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database, Dr James Robinson: “I think it’s fair to say that at some level most transplants in the world are facilitated by the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database.”

The IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is also used by pretty much any researcher who is investigating the HLA genes. This will help scientists make crucial discoveries about the way we find the best possible transplant matches, and unearth hidden gene variants that may become the next big thing in transplant science.

When the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database was first developed by Professor Steven Marsh and Dr James Robinson, it was so unique that all of the code and software had to be created from scratch! Dr Robinson and his team continue to pioneer leaps in bioinformatics that make the database easier to navigate and use in research.

When I wrote the HLA sequence alignment tool in the late ‘90s, I didn’t imagine the core code would still be in use 25 years later and used by scientists across the world. It’s the most used tool on the IPD site, with a new query run every 2-3 minutes.

Dr James Robinson, Head of Bioinformatics, Anthony Nolan Research Institute

Most highly cited!

Although the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is regularly updated with new genetic discoveries, once every two years the team from the Anthony Nolan Research Institute (ANRI) publish a paper in the journal Nucleic Acids Research that summarises the major additions to the Database.

This paper is always popular in the scientific community, as scientists around the world will often cite it in groundbreaking transplant research. Citations are a good way of measuring the prestige of a research group – and the ANRI team definitely grab a podium.

The Database update paper is frequently rated as a “Hot Paper” by the Web of Science, meaning it quickly gathers a lot of citations. Usually papers take several years before they gather a large amount of citations, but the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is always a hot topic.

The rate at which our IPD-IMGT/HLA Database update gathers citations indicates just how important this genetic database is to worldwide transplant science. Anthony Nolan is the ideal home for the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database and our team of researchers who maintain it, due to the importance of HLA science and research to the goals of the Anthony Nolan charity.

Professor Steven Marsh, Chief Bioinformatics & Immunogenetics Officer, Anthony Nolan Research Institute

The future of research at Anthony Nolan

While the IPD-IMGT/HLA Database is a critical pillar of transplant science worldwide, it really only scratches the surface of the revolutionary work happening across the different research areas of Anthony Nolan.

Every day, our scientists are pushing the boundaries of what we know about blood cancers, stem cell transplants, and gene therapies. Not only that, but research across our patient and clinical services is also advancing the way we recruit and care for our stem cell donors and patients, and work towards more equity and improved access to life-changing treatments.

Find out more

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