Introducing the Immunology, Inflammation and Infectious Disease Initiative
Jan 10, 2018 12:00 AM
The Immunology, Inflammation and Infectious Disease (III) Initiative at the University of Utah was established in 2017 on the premise that a better understanding of the three "I"s will fundamentally change the way we think about disease.
The relationship between the first two "I"s - immunology and the inflammation - is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, our immune system drives inflammation to fight off infection and heal wounds. On the other, misregulated inflammation causes a wide range of diseases including autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and heart disease. The third "I", infectious diseases such as malaria and influenza, is another major trigger of harmful inflammation. Therefore, it has become apparent that properly controlling the inflammatory response is critical for human health.
With a mission of making an impact on healthcare, III was created to improve diagnosis and treatment for this diverse array of disorders. It is built on a strong foundation of over 100 faculty who do research in related fields at 4 colleges or schools and 20 departments across campus. A major goal is to integrate basic, translational, and clinical research in these areas by strengthening the III community and fostering collaborations.
“Some of the greatest discoveries come from people working together on a collaborative project that draws on each of their unique strengths,” says the initiative’s director Ryan O’Connell, PhD, an associate professor of pathology. “To spark fresh ideas, we are getting scientists out of their silos.”
To do so, the initiative is sponsoring seminars, networking events, and symposia with internal and external speakers. In parallel, it is bolstering strategic research areas by facilitating 16 faculty recruitments in 5 departments. A competitive seed grant program will jump start bold cross-disciplinary ideas.
Already, a number of promising projects are underway. Scientists are exploring whether a peptide from umbilical cord blood can be developed as a novel class of anti-inflammatory agents to combat sepsis and other conditions. Other groups are researching the role of the microbiome –bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our body – in mediating susceptibility to multiple sclerosis. Advancing the quickly growing field of immunotherapy by using the body’s own immune defenses to combat cancer, is another key area of investigation.
“The immune system is involved in just about every disorder that we study in man,” says O’Connell. “We think that by improving our understanding of key areas within this initiative, we can develop novel therapeutic solutions for a wide range of conditions.”
Poised for Impact
Several years ago, pathology chair Peter Jensen, MD, recognized the implications of studying the connections between the three “I”s to improve our understanding of human disease, and catalyzed research within his own department to investigate them. Now, these efforts form the basis for III’s two organizing disease pillars.
The first is investigating diseases caused by immune deficiencies and dysregulation of the immune system. The second pillar is to understand diseases caused by host-microbe interactions, including parasitic, bacterial and virally-caused infectious diseases. III overlaps with diverse interests across the U and will strengthen efforts by creating bridges to diabetes and metabolism, neuroscience, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
These pillars and bridges will be supported by key foundational elements focused on molecular mechanisms and basic immunology, genomics, diagnostics and several core facilities across campus. III will also work with the University development office to garner philanthropic support for disease-related research covered under the initiative.
As the seed that Jensen planted continued to grow, it was brought to the joint leadership of O’Connell, June Round, PhD, associate professor of pathology, and Guy Zimmerman, MD, professor of internal medicine. The initiative officially launched in 2017, and O’Connell became director in December.
Newly hired program manager Nicole Frank, PhD, will assist O’Connell with program administration, catalyzing collaborative efforts, facilitating external funding, and website development. III will also be governed by an internal advisory board and an executive board led by pathology professor, and microbiology and immunology division chief, Brian Evavold, PhD.
“We have a tremendous amount of expertise in this area to go along with unique resources that together will drive transformative research here at the U,” says O’Connell. “We have every reason to believe we will be successful.”
For questions about the Immunology, Inflammation and Infectious Diseases Initiative, contact Nicole Frank