NIH Awards Team of U of R Scientists $9 Million to Study Immune System in Action

New Imaging Capabilities Hold Promise for Better Patient Treatments

July 17, 2014

Since the early days of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb, Rochester-area innovators have been making astounding discoveries in optics and imaging.  Researchers at the University of Rochester are beginning a major study that will add to the region’s imaging expertise, while also advancing global understanding of how the body’s immune system works.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year, $9 million Research Program Project Grant (PO1) to scientists in the School of Medicine and Dentistry to adapt and develop cutting-edge imaging techniques, allowing them to view the immune system while it is fighting infection and disease.

“Usually we take snapshots of an inflamed tissue and look at how the immune system is functioning in that tissue at that particular time,” says Principal Investigator Deborah J. Fowell, Ph.D., who is also Dean’s Associate Professor in Microbiology and Immunology at the School’s David H. Smith Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology.  “Immune cells rapidly respond and relocate to damaged tissues, but you don’t know if the cells involved in immune response have been there for a second, a day, or a week.  You don’t know if they are going to stay there or move.  Having a dynamic view of the immune response in inflamed or infected tissues in real time might help us to support or block the body’s immune response.”

Increased understanding of how immune cells are regulated in tissues could lead to novel approaches to manipulating the immune system.  This could improve treatment of infectious diseases such as influenza and HIV, or help clinicians stop chronic inflammation that causes certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, vascular disease, dermatitis, allergies, and other conditions.  In this study, researchers will conduct investigations of the immune system in real time as it fights infection or influences disease in live mice.  The scientists are collaborating with UR Medicine clinicians throughout the project to relate their innovative laboratory techniques and discoveries to human disease.

“The capabilities we develop in the laboratory could be of benefit to patients, and we don’t want to miss those opportunities,” Fowell says.

The research program is divided into three, interrelated components:

  • Project Leader Minsoo Kim, Ph.D., associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology, is developing tools and techniques to mark and guide immune system cells into tissues.
  • Fowell is working with Co-Investigator James F. Miller, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Immunology, to explore the movement of immune system cells through inflamed skin tissue.
  • Project Leader David J. Topham, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Immunology, is looking at the how the immune system responds to influenza infection in the trachea.

“As the biomedical research field undergoes rapid technological change, as well as funding challenges, the University of Rochester remains agile and transformative,” Mark B. Taubman, M.D., dean and vice president for Health Sciences, says. “This project is an outstanding example of an innovative, interprofessional research collaboration.  Working together, we can nimbly transfer groundbreaking discoveries from the laboratory to the bedside, enabling us to provide the most advanced patient care in the region and beyond.”

The researchers will make use of the University’s Multiphoton Core Facility, which contains state-of-the-art systems enabling in vivo (Latin for “in the living”) imaging and analysis.  Only a handful of immunology research groups are using this technology to move discovery forward.  Immunologists from around the world will be invited to the University for a symposium on in vivo imaging next spring. 

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Julie Philipp
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