With seed funding of $125 million from philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G Allen, who passed away in October 2018, The Allen Institute for Immunology is open for business.
Research at the new institute, which will be in Seattle and co-located with the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Allen Institute for Cell Science, is about characterizing the immune system in diseases and establishing the healthy baseline, defining precisely and on a large scale what a healthy immune system is, also in different age groups. One project will be a “deep dive” into the immune systems of healthy volunteers to measure what constitutes a healthy immune system, immunologist Thomas Bumol said at the institute’s opening press conference.
Bumol is the institute’s executive director and was previously at Lilly Research Laboratories where, among other positions, he was senior vice president of biotechnology and immunology research. He has retired from his role at Lilly but continues to advise Lilly Ventures and also serves on the University of Michigan Technology Transfer National Advisory Board.
He calls the immune system “Silent Guardians of the Galaxy of You.”
“What does a healthy immune system look like?” asked Bumol. And how might that constellation shift, for example in disease and aging? Despite much immunology research, what is as of yet poorly understood is the immune system’s dynamic balance.
Immune systems can lose their balance, for example in cancer, they can lose their surveillance functions and they can go into overdrive, such as is the case in auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Crohn’s disease.
Flow cytometry and mass cytometry are among the techniques the researchers plan to apply to get a detailed look the immune system. They will use monoclonal antibodies, apply single-cell transcriptomics and epigenetic characterization approaches. They want to measure hundreds of proteins in blood and diseased tissues such as joint tissue in rheumatoid arthritis and tissue from the gastrointestinal system from people with inflammatory bower disease and the microenvironments in each case.
The institute will expand to include 60-70 researchers, the organizers said. The work will build on collaboration with external partners, teams associated with the following researchers Jane Buckner of the Benaroya Research Institute; Stan Riddell at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Gary Firestein at UC San Diego; Kevin Deane, of University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania.
The teams will bring their research capabilities to the alliance, said Bumol. Together, the scientists will generate “an enormous amount of data,” which will be shared with the community through regular data releases from a centralized web site and supporting database. The institute will share molecular details of immune systems of people changing over time, both healthy volunteers and patients along with their accompanying medical information.
The immune system is a sensory organ as much as a protective one, said the University of Pennsylvania’s Wherry in the video introducing the institute. An immune cell circulating in the bloodstream cell may be in your left hand and, then one hour later, be in your heart.
In the study of autoimmunity, said Buckner from Benaroya Research Institute, a central question to pursue is what is the “mistake” that underlies auto-immune disorders. In order to understand what’s wrong, she said, “you better understand how the immune system works in a healthy person.”
Raphael Gottardo from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center pointed to the need dissect the factors that are decisive when people with cancer respond well to immunotherapy as opposed to those who respond less well or not at all. Besides generating data across many different patients, the scientists seek “go very deep” to understand the differences at a cellular level, between immune cells and cancer cells.
The new institute will have a translational focus because of the intent to leverage research that shortens the road from the lab to patient treatment and seeks to have an impact on patient treatment, said Bumol.
In a meeting with Paul Allen, Bumol recalls Allen asking how the teams at the new institute will go beyond data collection. Bumol says the promise is “to dedicate over half our group” to the tools in experimental immunology and computational biology. “We do anticipate that we’re going to generate new tools,” he said, and the scientists plan to integrate the new and emerging technologies with analysis tools.