La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology researchers focus on preventing disease through a better understanding of the immune system

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.

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Stephen Wilson, Ph.D.

“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.

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Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D.

“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.

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