The School of Medicine is proud to announce the establishment of The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine Immunology Institute, a cutting-edge and interdisciplinary hub for faculty, researchers, clinicians, health policy experts, and educators who seek to advance the study of immunology and improve human health through immune-based therapies including vaccines.
The Immunology Institute (II) will serve as a central focal point for coordinating immunologic research, which by its very nature is spread across disciplines such as microbiology, cell biology, transplantation, pediatric and adult medicine, oncology, pathology, and many more. The II will become a point of contact for those interested in immunology education and outreach–both on the UAB campus and within our community and state. Furthermore, it will bring researchers across disciplines together for greater collaboration—a distinguishing attribute of UAB.
Frances Lund, Ph.D., Charles H. McCauley Professor and Chair for the Department of Microbiology, will serve as the founding Director of the II. “This scientific area is a great passion for me,” she says, “and was designated in 2014 as one of five research priority areas for the School of Medicine.”
Troy Randall, Ph.D., The Meyer Foundation William J. Koopman Endowed Chair Professor in Immunology, Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, and Paul Goepfert, M.D., The Edward W. Hook III Endowed Professorship in Infectious Diseases, Division of Infectious Diseases, will serve as Associate Directors for the II.
“The institute will highlight immunology, which is an underappreciated research strength of UAB that is spread across many departments and divisions, and will organize it in a way that will allow UAB to better advertise our capacities in this area. II will help departments recruit top-talent faculty interested in immunology and will provide new research infrastructure for discoveries.”
On the new institute, Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research and Charlene A. Jones Endowed Chair in Neuroimmunology, says, “The SOM is strongly committed to the success of the II, which will have a tremendous impact on nucleating and expanding our excellence in immunology in basic science and clinical areas. We are most fortunate to have outstanding leadership for the II with Drs. Lund, Randall and Goepfert, bringing expertise in murine and human immunology, and in fundamental basic sciences to clinical trials.”
Lund states the institute will partner with entities like the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB to develop immune assays that may allow for better selection of immunotherapy treatment for cancer patients.
“II will bring clinical and basic science researchers together in discovery science programs to identify immunologic pathways that may be targeted in particular diseases in specific individuals. II associated cores will be a key component of clinical trials across a spectrum of diseases,” Lund explains. II will provide access to bioinformatics expertise in molecular and cellular immune profiling.
A key goal of the II is to establish and support a repository of healthy donor immune cell samples and eventually open the healthy sample bank to all researchers at UAB.
Patients with disease have provided donor samples for decades at UAB, but deriving samples from healthy patient cohorts will secure opportunities for new studies, new findings, and new therapies.
Lund notes that studying healthy human blood and tissue samples—in conjunction with disease samples or animal models—will further propel UAB into the national spotlight for immunology.
Healthy donor samples will serve as controls for samples from pathologic conditions, like cancer or infectious diseases, and will increase opportunity to create personalized therapeutics, grow competitiveness in faculty recruitment, and offer more possibilities for grant funding.
“The place we can shine [as an institution] is that we have a strong basic science footprint, but also incredible opportunities in terms of patient cohorts and clinical research,” Lund remarks. “The institute will connect studies in cancer, infectious disease, precision medicine, cell biology, and many other specialties.”
“It’s a big jump to go from studying animal model systems to human samples,” Lund says. “The infrastructure required for researchers to assemble human samples in their own labs is a hurdle.” The II will make it significantly easier for scientists to utilize and test hypotheses in healthy samples. Likewise, II will connect clinicians with basic scientists who can use their knowledge to interrogate patient samples, steadily bridging the gap from bench to bedside.
Birmingham is perfectly situated regionally for the Immunology Institute. II will play a key role in the next steps to addressing health disparities and chronic conditions in the Deep South. The institute will contribute to supporting studies of immunity and inflammation across a wide range of diseases that disproportionately impact the people of Alabama.
Likewise, the II will focus substantial efforts on immunologic education and outreach by recruiting top talent who can address fundamental and translational questions about the immune system in the setting of health and disease.
The institute aims to be a leading beacon of information for the general public, creating forums where members from the Birmingham community and beyond can directly engage with experts on how disease impacts daily life. Moreover, the II will develop partnerships with community organizations to discuss the importance of immune-based therapies, including vaccines, especially to underserved populations. Seminars and informational meetings will be a core component of the institute’s outreach efforts, as well as networking and education for faculty and researchers at UAB.
Lund explains that the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and vaccination is an example of what the institute hopes to mitigate in the future. “The public is seeking to understand the immune system and infectious disease—for the first time, or maybe the first time in a long time—and the institute will help educate and inform the general public.”
Another key initial priority for II includes teaming up with the O’Neal Cancer Center to develop protocols to measure the tumor immune response in cancer patients undergoing various immune-modulating treatments. II will also work with stakeholders across the campus to rapidly operationalize the healthy donor program and will partner with departments to recruit faculty with expertise in the broad areas of immunology, infectious disease and inflammation.
The II will contribute to national recognition and competiveness for UAB, as well as revolutionary research, novel therapeutics, and excellence in patient care. It is only one of few institutes of its kind in the country.