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Center for Immunobiology grows, bolsters program

Jul. 18, 2019, 8:32 AM

by Tom Wilemon

The Vanderbilt Center for Immunobiology (VCI) has relaunched its mission with a greater focus on human immunology, an endeavor supported by additional researchers, more funding support and designation as a Center of Excellence.

“We are focusing on human immune diseases and trying to integrate genetics as a way to drive innovation,” said Jeffrey Rathmell, PhD, director of VCI and Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Immunobiology.

Jeffrey Rathmell, PhD, directs the Vanderbilt Center for Immunobiology.
Jeffrey Rathmell, PhD, directs the Vanderbilt Center for Immunobiology. (photo by Susan Urmy)

In May, VCI received the Center of Excellence designation from the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies (FOCIS), an organization that fosters interdisciplinary approaches to understand and treat immune-based diseases. In June, Vanderbilt University awarded Trans-Institutional Programs (TIPS) funding to the Human Immunology Discovery Initiative (HIDI), a collaborative effort led by VCI. Over the last two years, VCI has bolstered its team with the recruitment of three highly respected researchers.

“Immunology represents an important strategic area for continued growth at Vanderbilt University Medical Center,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Executive Vice President for Research at VUMC, director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and holder of the Brock Family Directorship in Career Development. “We are pleased that VCI and Dr. Rathmell’s leadership are being recognized through this Center of Excellence designation, which further positions Vanderbilt as an internationally recognized leader in immunology research that improves human health.”

The new VCI researchers include Mary Philip, MD, PhD, who was recruited from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Heather Pua, MD, PhD, who was recruited from University of California, San Francisco Medical Center; and Tae Kon Kim, MD, PhD, who was recruited from Yale Cancer Center.

There are 74 FOCIS Centers of Excellence worldwide.

“The Center of Excellence designation allows us to participate with human immunology leaders from across the world; it’s an international group,” said Rathmell, who came to Vanderbilt in September 2015 to lead VCI and to serve as co-leader of the Host Tumor Interactions Research Program at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Recent medical advances in human immunology, including immunotherapies for cancer, bring the potential for new treatments for other diseases.

“What the relaunch of the VCI is about is the further recognition that immunology now touches every field,” Rathmell said. “Every disease area has some component of tissue inflammation, where the hematopoietic system, the immune system, becomes involved either to fight off potentially the pathogen, the tumor or some other damage, but then also participate in the repair process of that tissue.”

The TIPS funding gives Vanderbilt researchers the resources to investigate and better understand diseases of the immune system. Techniques such as high-dimensional flow cytometry or cell cytometry will visualize cell activity to connect genetic information.

“It’s an effort to do immune phenotyping on patients with immunologic diseases and partner that with efforts at the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute to see if there are genetic signatures that associate with specific immune states and phenotypes,” Rathmell said.

High dimensional flow cytometry or cell cytometry will be utilized to visualize cell activity.

The HIDI will initially focus on two patient groups: adults with autoimmune diseases and children with immune system disorders. Rathmell and colleagues will work closely with the Vanderbilt Rheumatology Clinic and the Comprehensive Hematology, Immunology and Infectious Disease Program at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

The researchers will also use CRISPR, a technology for editing genomes, to study inborn errors of human immunity in mouse models.

“In the end, what we hopefully are going to have is a platform where you can understand the different cell populations with phenotyping and genetics,” Rathmell said. “We want to start in these pediatric immunology and adult rheumatology patients because we know they have immune disorders. Then, hopefully, once the platform is in place we are going to integrate with other groups.”

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