Who We Are
Over the last 5-10 years the Institute for Immunology (IFI) has seen unprecedented interest in immunology by investigators in cancer and in neurosciences with the emerging concept that the host immune response plays a major role in disease severity, tumor growth and metastases and chronic degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophies and Alzheimer’s Disease. The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci has a $6.1 billion budget for 2021 to address its mission to ‘Expand the breadth and depth of knowledge in all areas of infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases’. NIH institutes also include NCI, NIAMS, NEI and NIGMS have made research in immunology a priority, which also support IFI investigators.
The mission of the IFI is 3-fold: 1) to facilitate interactions among the faculty members that provide added value for individual researchers beyond what they can achieve alone. This includes providing opportunities for collaborations at weekly seminars and journal clubs, and at the annual symposium (the IFI Fair); 2) to provide access and support for state-of-the-art technology for immunology investigators. Flow cytometry is an essential methodology in immunology research, and the IFI runs a core facility that has 5 instruments and an outstanding core manager, Dr. Jennifer Atwood. The IFI also worked with the Stem Cell Research Center to establish a new mass cytometry core. 3) To provide academic guidance and financial support for immunology graduate students. Following the renewal of the NIAID T32 Training grant in 2016, we were able to support 20 student stipends and tuition over the last 5 years. To meet the increasing interest in immunology by incoming graduate students to the Cellular and Molecular Biology (CMB) graduate program, IFI faculty have recently developed an Immunology Training Program (ITP) that will guide students from recruitment through to graduation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an increased awareness of immunology to all Americans and to the world at large. As of early September 2021, the Johns Hopkins coronavirus research center reports >219 million cases, resulting in >4.5 million deaths worldwide, including >39 million cases and >644,000 deaths in the USA. The immune system plays two major roles in COVID-19. Firstly, RNA- and protein- based vaccines stimulate antibody and T cell responses that are protective when individuals are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the highly contagious Delta variant. The protective effect of vaccines is exemplified by epidemiological data showing that >90% of all hospitalizations and deaths in USA occur in unvaccinated individuals, including a recent CDC report that unvaccinated individuals are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people (MMWR, August 27, 2021). Given that new variants continue to develop, there is an ongoing need to understand the protective immune response and to develop new vaccines. Several UCI/IFI investigators have NIH, Department of Defense, or Foundation grants, and are actively involved in COVID-19 vaccine studies, including Lbachir Benmohamed, Philip Felgner, Huw Davies, Lisa Wagar and Weian Zhao.
The UCI Institute for Immunology (IFI) was originally established as an organized research unit in 2009 to provide a cross-campus, multi-disciplinary resource for Immunology faculty, students and post-doctoral fellows. Dr. Paolo Casali was the founding director, and with support from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, IFI activities included weekly seminar series and journal clubs, the annual symposium (IFI Fair) and management of an NIAID T32 Training grant. Drs. Albert Zlotnik and Craig Walsh were interim directors from 2014 until January 2015 when Eric Pearlman was appointed as the new Director of the IFI.