New center aims to use immune system to fight cancer, other diseases

A new center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will help scientists use the power of the immune system to fight infections and cancers.

The Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs (CHiiPs) is part of BioMed21, the university’s initiative to accelerate basic science discoveries into improved diagnosis and treatment for patients. The center will be housed in the BJC Institute of Health.

Immunotherapy uses the strength and reach of the immune system to fight infections and cancer. Scientists also are developing ways to restrain the immune system when it mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, leading to autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

“Several very important basic discoveries in these areas have been made by Washington University faculty, but it has been challenging to move those discoveries into the clinic,” said CHiiPs director Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, the Alumni Professor of Pathology and Immunology at the School of Medicine.

Recent insight from pioneering researchers at the School of Medicine include proof that the immune system can recognize cancers and regulate their growth. The scientists also have identified ways to manipulate the immune system’s ability to destroy cancer cells. In other work, the school has been a leader in developing new vaccines for emergent diseases such as West Nile virus and in identifying immune cells and molecules involved in autoimmune conditions such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.

Schreiber and his colleagues at the center are acquiring new technologies and recruiting new faculty to accelerate bench-to-bedside medicine with support from Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton; Larry J.
Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of
the School of Medicine; and the heads of the Departments of Medicine,
Pathology and Immunology, Radiation Oncology and Surgery. For example, the center will include a laboratory with technology that monitors changes in the immune system during clinical trials of new immunotherapies.

“This laboratory will provide tests that are not ordinarily offered by our existing clinical facilities,” Schreiber said. “Until now, faculty performing immunological clinical trials or studying unique immunologic clinical syndromes had to set up these tests in their own labs, which is a lot of work and doesn’t always produce standardized results.”

The centerpiece of the new laboratory is a state-of-the-art instrument known as a time-of-flight mass cytometer that simultaneously can detect more than 50 different structures either on the cell surface or inside the cell. These structures provide important clues to the identity of the cells of interest, their state of activation and the functions they perform. Until now, scientists have been limited to studying no more than a handful of these markers at a time.

Funding for the new technology is provided in part by Alvin J. Siteman, chairman of Site Oil Co., whose $35 million gift in 1999 established the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

The center’s leaders are recruiting new faculty interested in applying immunological discoveries to clinical problems. Working together with the leadership of the Department of Neurological Surgery, CHiiPs directors recruited Gavin Dunn, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon and School of Medicine alumnus (’06) who joined the faculty in December. Dunn is interested in finding ways to use the immune system to treat brain tumors.

The heads of medicine, surgery, radiation oncology, and pathology and immunology have openings reserved for new faculty who are interested in studying the roles of the immune system in inducing and fighting diseases.

Other leaders of the center are Wayne Yokoyama, MD, the Sam and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Medicine, associate director for immune dysfunction; and Michael Diamond, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, associate director for infectious diseases and vaccines. Yet to be filled is the position of associate director for tumor immunology and cancer immunotherapy. Stephen Oh, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, is the center’s head of mass cytometry.

“From basic immunologists to the translational immunology community, from department heads to division directors and from the dean to the chancellor, CHiiPs has been met with an enormous groundswell of support,” Schreiber said. “With that kind of enthusiasm and the research power we have here at the university, we feel there is great potential for making important advances in our ability use the immune system therapeutically to fight disease and promote health.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.