Cornell experts from Ithaca and New York City gathered June 26-27 at the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) for the Immunology in Health and Disease Symposium, an event that sparked new ideas for collaboration between Weill Cornell Medicine scientists and their upstate colleagues. “The event enabled us to identify ways we can use the tools in one field to inform and drive discovery in the other,” said event co-organizer Cynthia Leifer, CVM associate professor of immunology. “And it really showcased how many opportunities there are to foster cross-collaboration.”
The symposium marks the fourth academic cross-campus conference funded by the Cornell Academic Integration Initiative, which aims to build integration between Weill Cornell Medicine researchers and their Ithacan colleagues. “We want to catalyze synergy,” said Dr. Gary Koretzky, vice provost for academic integration at Cornell University. “We want to overcome … this idea that people don’t know much about each other across each campus, and identify possibilities for all types of collaborations.”
The event was devised by Leifer and her Cornell immunology colleagues, and co-organized with Dr. Virginia Pascual, the Drukier Director of the Gale and Ira Drukier Institute for Children’s Health at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Faculty talks spanned basic and applied research. Avery August, professor of immunology and vice provost for academic affairs, gave an overview of his lab’s work on ITK, a key immune cell regulator that August likened to a turntable that provides nuanced tuning between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses in the body. David Artis, director of the Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and the Michael Kors Professor of Immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine, discussed the role of gut microbes in host immune cell function. “I think this is the forefront of human medicine and represents the next frontier of drug discovery,” he said.
Presentations also explored impacts in veterinary medicine. Elia Tait Wojno, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, discussed innate immune responses to allergies and helminth infection and her search for therapeutic targets for canine and human allergic disease. “By studying some of the mechanisms that control type 2 immune responses, we can begin to develop control and treatment strategies for both these types of inflammation,” Tait Wojno said.
Dr. Kristy Richards discussed dogs in her presentation on comparative lymphoma research. An associate professor of biomedical sciences at CVM and an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, Richards uses canine lymphoma patients that come to Cornell University Hospital for Animals and enroll in clinical trials as clinical models for canine and human cancer drug development, including immunotherapy studies. Since dogs live in germ-filled environments just like humans, these pets provide much more realistic examples for drug research. “In dogs, the immune system is intact and educated, allowing a much more accurate assessment of immunotherapeutic affects,” said Richards. Another benefit, she added is “easy access to repeat biopsies – with a little bit of peanut butter.”
New technologies and methods were another hot topic. Pamela Chang, assistant professor of immunology, discussed her work in chemical optogenetics. “Current tools aren’t fast enough to interrogate rapid biological responses or special relationships between cells,” said Chang. “We need new tools with spatial and temporal precision.” Her group uses light-controlled enzymes to activate and inactivate immune cells at specific timescales and locations. After perfecting this tool in vitro, Chang said their next step is to test the technology in mouse models.
Leifer uses stiffness instead of light to manipulate immune cells. Her group created acrylamide gels with precisely defined stiffnesses mimicking normal and diseased tissues and tested how macrophages respond to softer or stiffer environments. “Almost everything we’ve measured in our macrophages has been affected by stiffness,” Leifer said, including the cells’ size, morphology and pro-inflammatory signaling. They plan to begin manipulating biophysical environments in vivo to find novel pharmacological targets.
The conference culminated in breakout sessions aimed at catalyzing ideas to strengthen research collaboration between campuses. They identified the need for improved communication and information sharing as primary goals, as well as making the symposium an annual event.
“At Weill Cornell Medicine, they have large numbers of human samples and can do extraordinary work in terms of big data and cell sequencing,” said Leifer. "We have the ability to investigate our models at a deeper mechanistic level, and also have extraordinary bioengineering and biochemical technology resources here [in Ithaca].” Like the Cornell Academic Integration Initiative working to reduce paperwork and other logistical barriers to collaboration, both Cornell campuses will soon benefit from these complementary strengths.
Lauren Cahoon Roberts is assistant director of communications for the College of Veterinary Medicine.