By Kristina Houck
About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 1 in every 4 deaths. Researchers at La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology are focused on increasing our understanding of the immune system to prevent disease, like heart disease, and develop vaccines, treatments and cures.
From chronic, severe autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, to immune system malfunctions underlying cancer and heart disease, the immune system is at the root of many diseases, said Stephen Wilson, Ph.D., Institute executive vice president and chief technology officer.
“We tend to think of diabetes as pancreatic disease, multiple sclerosis as nervous disease, coronary artery disease as heart disease and Alzheimer’s as brain disease. These are actually inflammatory diseases. It’s your immune system,” said Wilson, a Carmel Valley resident who became an immunologist after learning his uncle’s fatal heart attack stemmed from a lifelong battle with diabetes. “You don’t have coronary artery disease because you have a bad heart; you have it because you’ve got inflammation in your heart.”
Founded in 1988, the Institute has about 350 employees, including a research staff of more than 150 Ph.D.s and M.D.s from around the world. The biomedical research organization houses 22 independent laboratories at its 145,000-square-foot building, which was constructed in 2006 and is located on UC San Diego’s Health Sciences Campus near the Moores Cancer Center.
In the last decade, the Institute has nearly doubled in size, said Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D., Institute president and chief scientific officer.
“Under my 10 years here as president, we’ve built the strength and diversity of the faculty, the people who run the labs,” said Kronenberg, a Del Mar resident who has worked at the Institute for 16 years. “We’ve almost doubled the size of the number of labs and we’ve greatly diversified the skill set. There are people doing different kinds of research, all related to the immune system.”
Still not as large as many of its scientific peers, the Institute’s size is like a “Goldilocks zone,” Wilson said.
“We spend a lot of time thinking how everyone at the Institute contributes and what we can do,” Wilson said. “We’re big enough to have resources, but we’re small enough to remember people’s first name.”
The Institute was recently named the No. 1 best place to work in the worldwide academic research community, according to survey results announced by “The Scientist Magazine.” La Jolla-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography ranked No. 8.
“Employee satisfaction is a true value here,” Kronenberg said. “We want people to feel that working here is contributing to something really important.”
Since the founding of the Institute, its scientists have published more than 1,000 scholarly papers in scientific journals, which resulted in numerous patents for discoveries that may yield clinical applications. Several drug candidates are currently in various stages of clinical trials, including Lexiscan, a drug already used for diagnosing heart disease, which researchers discovered might reduce the attacks sickle cell patients suffer.
In addition, the Institute in 2010 developed San Diego’s first center for RNAi screening, a breakthrough genomics technology that enables scientists to rapidly turn off any one or a combination of the 25,000 human genes to determine which biological functions these genes control.
In 2003, the Institute established the Immune Epitope Database, the world’s largest collection of scientific data on how the immune system responds to a wide range of infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders, allergies and other immune-mediated diseases.
Kronenberg said one of his goals as president of the organization is to increase the community’s awareness of the Institute and its work.
“San Diego is a powerhouse of research, but what we do is different. We focus on the immune system,” Kronenberg said. “I think the public doesn’t realize how the immune system contributes, not only on a daily basis to your health, but to so many different diseases when it goes wrong.”
Kronenberg plans to recruit three more labs to study human genetics and how the human genome relates to disease, as well as take advantage of new technologies to better understand DNA sequencing.
“If we do our job and communicate with the general public, they will learn it’s not a million years away to be able deal with a lot of diseases,” Wilson said. “We know the cause. We even have ideas as to how to attack the treatment of it. We just have to figure out what is really going on with the immune system.”
For more information about the Institute, visit www.liai.org.
La Jolla Institute presents a
‘Life Without Disease’ seminar
Diseases of Inflammation:
Spotlight on Asthma by Dr. Michael Croft
Date: Sept. 26
Time: 5:30 p.m., reception to follow
Location: 9420 Athena Circle
Free to attend, RSVP required: firstname.lastname@example.org, (858) 752-6557