Our immune system touches almost every aspect of our health, so it’s no surprise that so many diseases have their root in an unbalance in that system.
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases and more than 100 different cancers that afflict people around the world, and many more diseases that involve the immune system.
The Allen Institute for Immunology’s findings about the healthy immune system could lay the groundwork for progress in all these diseases, but we are also directly focusing on studies of five immune-related diseases in our initial phase: cancer, specifically, multiple myeloma and melanoma; and rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, that is, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
While some advances have been made in a few diseases in recent years, our poor understanding of the inherent complexity of the immune system is a roadblock to better treatments that many patients still need. Progress in developing new therapies for many immune-related diseases is stymied by a lack of appropriate therapeutic targets.
We believe that our work will illustrate numerous new targets in key disease pathways for the next generation of medicines and diagnostics. In some cases, our discoveries may also point to new avenues for disease prevention, such as in rheumatoid arthritis, where we and our partners will be studying patients at risk for the disease before and after they progress to rheumatoid arthritis.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma inside the bone marrow, which generates all our immune cells. A relatively rare blood cancer, multiple myeloma afflicts approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. each year, killing nearly 13,000, according to the American Cancer Society. While treatments for this cancer and survival rates have improved in recent years, many patients are still in need of better therapies. One such promising but early-stage treatment is known as T-cell therapy, a type of immunotherapy that engineers a patient’s own immune cells to recognize and attack the malignant myeloma cells. We are partnering with researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to better understand the immune mechanisms behind T-cell therapy — both when it works to reduce patients’ tumors and when it fails.
Melanoma is a relatively rare skin cancer, accounting for only approximately 1 percent of skin cancer cases in the U.S., but it is far deadlier than the more common types of skin cancer. More than 9,000 people in the U.S. are projected to die from melanoma every year, according to the American Cancer Society, and rates of the skin cancer are on the rise. New forms of immunotherapy known as checkpoint inhibitors are showing promise in treating advanced melanoma, but these treatments don’t work for all patients. We are working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to better understand the immunology behind this emerging treatment in melanoma patients and the fundamental mechanisms of understanding induced changes in immune capabilities with these novel interventions.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common autoimmune disease, affecting nearly one in every 100 Americans, and nearly three times as many women as men, according to the American College of Rheumatology. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissue; in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune cells attack the lining of the joints, causing painful swelling and even permanent deformities or disabilities in advanced stages. There’s no cure for the disease; patients with this type of arthritis typically need lifelong treatment to calm the inflammation and suppress their immune systems. Together with researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, we are studying the immune system as people at high risk of rheumatoid arthritis develop the disease, to better understand the molecular and cellular changes that underlie the disease’s early stages. We hope this research will give us insights into the initiation of rheumatoid arthritis that could inform research into many other autoimmune diseases.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a class of autoimmune diseases that cause ongoing inflammation of the digestive tract and include the specific diseases termed Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both these conditions can cause severe diarrhea and abdominal pain, and they can be debilitating if very severe. The exact cause of IBD is not clear but researchers believe the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the gut, triggering inflammation. There is no cure for IBD; patients typically take anti-inflammatory medications or immune-suppressing treatment, but these therapies don’t always work, leading to increased morbidity and complications for patients. Together with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, we will study the immune differences between patients whose IBD is kept under control by currently available therapies and those whose treatments fail to work. This research should illustrate new directions for novel interventions.