Fine-tuning our immune response so drugs work better when time means everything.

To thwart infectious diseases and other potential threats to health, each of us carries an amazingly sophisticated set of weapons. The immune system mounts targeted attacks against specific pathogens and protects us against environmental insults. But what happens when this system goes haywire?

Fast facts

  • Immune system response and function underlies a broad spectrum of human diseases, including many not involving pathogens or specific immune disorders.
  • Autoimmune diseases are typically characterized by healthy tissue being attacked by the immune system.
  • The National Institutes of Health estimates that up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease and that the prevalence is rising each year.

JAX Research:Working to end the uncertainty

Harnessing the body’s natural immunity against cancer is a longtime research goal that is beginning to show promise. JAX Professor Karolina Palucka, M.D., Ph.D., exploits dendritic cells, which control the body’s immune response to tumors, as the basis for new vaccines against melanomas and other human cancers. Assistant Professor Gary Ren, Ph.D., focuses on elucidating how certain stem cells and immune-regulatory cells affect the adaptive immune responses in cancer treatment resistance and metastatic relapse.

With the goal of better protecting people from infectious diseases, JAX Professor and Jacques Banchereau, Ph.D., leads several investigations of human immune cell function and dysfunction in health and disease. He has a grant to develop clinical adjuvants to boost vaccine effectiveness in elderly and immunosuppressed patients. With researchers at UConn Health, Banchereau is working to better understand the immune system changes that occur as a consequence of aging, with the goal of prolonging the healthy lifespan of the elderly.

Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus) is a poorly understood autoimmune disorder involving multiple tissues. JAX Professor Derry Roopenian, Ph.D., studies autoimmune disease mechanisms, with a focus on lupus and developing better biotherapeutics based on a specific protein, FcRn.

Many genes have been implicated in Type 1 diabetes, and JAX Professor David Serreze, Ph.D., studies the complex genetics of the autoimmune process that leads to the destruction of beta cells, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Research worldwide in immunology, cancer and many other diseases depends on the special immunodeficient mouse models developed by JAX Professor Lenny Shultz, Ph.D. The “NSG” (NOD/SCID/Gamma) mouse can be adapted to develop a human-like immune system, enabling detailed study of immune function as well as vital research in infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV. These mice can also host human tumors for study and treatment trials.

The immune system’s arsenal includes T cells, and JAX Professor Derya Unutmaz, M.D., studies how T cells respond to infectious diseases, and why they fail to work as well in aging and chronic diseases, including HIV.

Everyone has 10 times as many microorganisms living in and on the body as human cells, and little is known to date of how the body’s immune system interacts with these nonhuman cells. JAX Professor George Weinstock, Ph.D., is a pioneer in studying the microbiome (the collective name for these microorganisms) and its role in health and disease.