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Visit by esteemed immunologist launches new center

This fall marks the launch of the new Cornell Center for Immunology, a virtual hub for immunological research that crosses several departments, colleges and campuses.

Immunologist Mark Davis speaks to students and faculty Sept. 9 in Ithaca.

Gary Koretzky, the center’s director and vice provost for academic integration, said Cornell “is fortunate to have outstanding faculty across both our Ithaca and Weill Cornell Medicine campuses with strong investigative programs in immunology.” Koretzky is a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and of microbiology and immunology at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca.

“Furthermore, there are many investigators who do not consider themselves ‘card-carrying’ immunologists whose work intersects with the immune system in important ways,” he said. “The goal of the Cornell Center for Immunology is to bring this community together and foster collaborative, synergistic research.”

To help launch the new center, world-renowned immunologist Mark Davis was selected as a fall 2019 University Lecturer. He was in Ithaca Sept. 9-10, meeting with students and faculty and delivering a talk, “Standing on the Shoulders of Mice: Rebooting Human Immunology.”

Davis, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection, discussed in his lecture how, in spite of the importance of experimenting on mice as a way to understand the immune system, research on mice has limitations when applied to humans.

“In the premier mouse model for Type 1 diabetes,” he said, “we’ve prevented diabetes in those mice at least 300 times, and yet we haven’t done that for one single human being.”

As a result, Davis said, researchers are rethinking their dependence on mouse models as they develop new technologies and systems to directly study the human immunology.

Davis, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, cited studies that compare the effects of vaccines on the immune systems of different individuals as an example of an existing system that can be tapped.

Blood samples contain an array of cells and proteins, which can be targeted in immune system studies. Stanford now has developed a specialized core facility for the analysis of blood samples in human immune studies, he said.

Davis has measured more than 200 variables in the blood samples of twins to comprehensively assess the effects of genetics versus environmental influences on the immune system.

“It’s something you can do much more easily in humans than you can do in mice,” Davis said. “In fact, the whole twin study you can’t really do in mice at all, because you can’t expose mice to the variety of environments or influences or the genetic variation that goes along with being a human, and particularly a human twin.”

Overall, Davis said, the strategy should be to investigate what we can do to ask unique questions in humans that you can’t necessarily ask in mice. While human immunology holds great potential, effective research requires more collaboration across different disciplines, he said. Computation, biobanking, more extensive core facilities and technology development geared toward human analysis are all areas being advanced to facilitate human immune system studies.

As part of his visit, Davis also attended a luncheon for postdoctoral researchers and graduate students from a variety of fields. Four of these students are participants in the National Institutes of Health T32 Training Grant, a new program funded by a five-year, $890,000 NIH grant. The Cornell immuno-engineering training program prepares students to fill a growing need for a hybrid field that combines engineering and immunology. Cornell is one of two institutions in the country to offer NIH T32 grants.

“The center hopes to nucleate and catalyze activities that extend the scholarship of students, postdocs, faculty and research staff,” Koretzky said. “We also are committed to One Cornell, and envision the center to be a home for increased interactions with colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine who already represent nearly 25% of the membership of the center.”

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Abby Butler