June 29, 2017

New institute to focus on immune system

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) is launching a new institute to coordinate initiatives among the rapidly evolving disciplines of infection biology, immunology and inflammatory diseases.


Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) is launching a new institute to coordinate initiatives among the rapidly evolving disciplines of infection biology, immunology and inflammatory diseases.

The Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation — VI4 for short — will be headquartered in facilities at the Medical Center and will serve the entire Vanderbilt community.

The new institute will pursue a trans-institutional approach that leverages knowledge from across the Vanderbilt campus for research and training programs that seek a more comprehensive understanding of the human immune system.

“Achieving a greater understanding of the mechanisms of immunology and infection is medicine’s next frontier and an area critical to the future of humankind,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., President and CEO of VUMC and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Already, through progress made by our investigators there is a strong foundation on the Vanderbilt campus in this area. The creation of this new institute will allow their talent to be leveraged to maximum benefit while furthering our role as a leader.”

The institute will be directed by Eric Skaar, Ph.D., MPH, Ernest W. Goodpasture Professor of Pathology, vice chair for Basic Research and director of the Division of Molecular Pathogenesis in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

Eric Skaar, Ph.D., MPH

It will incorporate two centers that are part of the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology and the Department of Medicine — the Vanderbilt Center for Microbial Pathogenesis, which Skaar directs, and the Vanderbilt Center for Immunobiology, directed by Jeffrey Rathmell, Ph.D., professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Immunobiology.

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Eric Skaar as the founding director of this new institute. He is an internationally recognized leader in infectious disease research and is making seminal discoveries at the intersection between nutrition and infection,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., Executive Vice President for Research for VUMC, Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. “In addition to his scientific expertise and breadth, he brings tremendous leadership skills and vision that will catalyze a rapid launch of VI4 collaborative research and training programs.”

Rathmell will serve as an associate director of VI4. Skaar said Rathmell will bring considerable expertise in immunobiology to the institute.

This is a time of “significant need and incredible opportunity,” Skaar said. “Infectious disease is a rare example of a clinical specialty for which treatment options are predicted to decrease in coming years.”

Historically manageable bacterial infections have evolved resistance to even the most powerful antibiotics, while globalization and climate change have enabled the emergence of new viral pathogens for which no treatment options exist.

“The emergence of these new infectious threats requires the development of therapeutics that can harness the power of the immune system, such as vaccines or antibody-based therapies,” Skaar said.

At the same time there is growing appreciation of how the microbiome — the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in or on the body — affects health and disease.

The field of cancer immunology has seen “startling breakthroughs” in the treatment of previously intractable cancers in recent years, he added. Inflammation is now seen as the major component contributing to most human diseases, including cancer.

“Taken together, it is clear that the fields of microbiology and immunology are at the leading edge of the most important and exciting scientific breakthroughs of this generation,” Skaar said.

“Vanderbilt has made key contributions to research and clinical care in the areas of infection and immunology,” he said. Areas of strength include personalized medicine, structural biology, vaccinology, immunometabolism and nutrition.

Expanding these areas while creating the infrastructure to support microbiome science will fill critical research gaps and better prepare the University and Medical Center to tackle contemporary issues impacting biomedical research and human health, he said.

Skaar earned his Ph.D. in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis and MPH in Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Northwestern University. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2005. In 2014 he received Vanderbilt’s Stanley Cohen Award for his highly innovative, multi-disciplinary approach to studying microbial pathogenesis and the body’s response to infection.