UAB’s new Immunology Institute provides new avenues for discovery

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the urgent need for enhanced study and discovery in the field of immunology.
Written by: Mary Ashley Canevaro
Media contact: Bob Shepard

Healthcare worker in PPE working in lab.The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the urgent need for enhanced study and discovery in the field of immunology.
(Photo by: Lexi Coon)
The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine has established the Immunology Institute, a cutting-edge and interdisciplinary hub for faculty, researchers, clinicians, health policy experts and educators to advance the study of immunology and improve human health through immune-based therapies, including vaccines.

The Immunology Institute, one of a few such enterprises in the nation, 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 institute will become a point of contact for those interested in immunology education and outreach — both on the UAB campus and within the 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 institute. 

“This scientific area is a great passion for me,” Lund said. “Immunology 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.

“The institute will highlight immunology, an underappreciated research strength of UAB spread across many departments and divisions,” Lund said. “It will help departments recruit top-talent faculty interested in immunology and will provide new research infrastructure for discoveries.”

“The School of Medicine is strongly committed to the success of the institute, which will have a tremendous impact on nucleating and expanding our excellence in immunology in basic science and clinical areas,” said Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research and Charlene A. Jones Endowed Chair in Neuroimmunology. “We are most fortunate to have outstanding leadership for the institute with Drs. Lund, Randall and Goepfert, bringing expertise in murine and human immunology, and in fundamental basic sciences to clinical trials.”

A key goal of the Immunology Institute will be 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 says 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. 

Frances Lund, Ph.D., Charles H. McCauley Professor, Department of Microbiology, and founding director of the institute.Frances Lund, Ph.D., Charles H. McCauley Professor, Department of Microbiology, and founding director of the institute.
(Photo by: Steve Wood)
“Where 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 said. “The institute will connect studies in cancer, infectious disease, precision medicine, cell biology and many other specialties. The institute will make it significantly easier for scientists to utilize and test hypotheses in healthy samples. Likewise, it 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, as it will play a key role in the next steps in 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, it 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 institute will develop partnerships with community organizations to discuss the importance of immune-based therapies, including vaccines, especially to underserved populations. 

Lund says 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,” she said.

Another key initial priority for the Immunology Institute 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. It 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 Immunology Institute will contribute to national recognition and competitiveness for UAB, as well as revolutionary research, novel therapeutics and excellence in patient care.