Integrated Disease Programs: Immunology and Infectious Diseases
Leader: Ignacio Sanz, M.D.
Infectious diseases have been one of the principal threats to the lives of people everywhere throughout history. The threat continues, even in the age of powerful antibiotics, through newly evolved dangers such as bird flu. Besides protecting us against such deadly microbes, the activity of our immune system is central to diseases as diverse as arthritis, asthma, diabetes and atherosclerosis. This pantheon of killers makes an attractive target for the Immunology and Infectious Disease integrated disease program.
Knowledge of the vast, diverse workings of the immune system – a booming field, with the Medical Center already at the vanguard – has the potential to create new approaches not yet imagined to prevent or treat diseases such as cancer, and to revolutionize the manufacture of vaccines. And the rapid unfolding of knowledge about how our body sometimes turns on itself offers tremendous hope for patients with autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and asthma, which affect a large portion of the population.
A finely tuned dynamic balance between appropriate and pathogenic immune responses is critical to a range of medical issues – protective responses to vaccines and infections, effective surveillance and elimination of cancer cells, avoidance of allergy, asthma and autoimmunity, and acceptance of transplanted organs. Currently, our ability to measure the efficacy of immune interventions for allergy, autoimmune disorders, cancer and transplantation is often limited simply to how patients fare. There’s a palpable need for more sophisticated testing to measure the immune system, and new methods to modulate the immune response in a predictable manner.
The emphasis on immunology is appropriate, as the discipline is the source of the Medical Center’s greatest recognition, and greatest royalties. It was a new approach developed 25 years ago at the University – conjugate vaccine technology – that led to the creation of vaccines against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), pneumococcus, and meningitis; those vaccines now save tens of thousands of children each year from serious illness. The successful commercialization of the Hib vaccine in 1990, breaking a long drought in new vaccine technology at the time, ushered in a new era of vaccine technology development worldwide. More recently, research by a trio of University virologists is crucial to new vaccines designed to prevent cervical cancer, which kills more than 230,000 women around the globe every year. In the area of autoimmune disease, researchers have pioneered the use of a new treatment for lupus and have shown that approximately 30 percent of patients treated enter long-standing remission.
On the applied side, the University has had a hand in testing dozens of new vaccine candidates, including nearly every new vaccine to be approved in the last three decades. Our physicians and nurses have helped protect the nation against infectious threats, including whooping cough, bird flu, anthrax, and pneumonia. The team is at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to prevent a bird flu pandemic; more people in Rochester have taken part in studies of bird flu vaccine than nearly any other city in the world. And the sheer availability of vaccine to prevent the “regular” but still deadly flu is thanks to the grit and determination of a cadre of Medical Center researchers who have led studies leading to the approval of new vaccines.
Such research has already established the Medical Center as a powerhouse of basic and applied immunology. URMC is home to an Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, a Human Immunology Center, a Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling, an HIV Vaccine Trials Unit, and a Center of Excellence in Influenza Research. These centers reflect not only the Medical Center’s strengths in this area, but also the fact that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is the only NIH institute with a budget that has grown consistently in recent years.Plans call for several new hires in the areas of human autoimmunity, cancer immunology, and influenza and respiratory pathogens. The creation of a major cancer immunology group also will have obvious implications for the cancer integrated disease program.
Immunology and infectious disease
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