La Jolla institute is unlocking the mysteries of the immune system

Among La Jolla’s world-class biomedical research institutions, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (LIAI) might be seen as something of a little brother. But the work going on in its Science Research Park labs has the potential to change the way a whole of host of diseases and other ailments are treated.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, LIAI studies one of the body’s most basic functions: the immune system, and the applications of this work stretch across the spectrum of medical science.

“We want to boost beneficial responses in a specific way but also to turn off destructive immune responses,” said LIAI President and Scientific Director Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D.

Kronenberg said most of the public doesn’t realize that the root cause of many diseases is a malfunction of the immune system. For example, multiple sclerosis is a nervous system disorder in which the immune system attacks the insulation of the nerves. And in type 1 diabetes the disease process includes an inappropriate response from the immune system to the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

The Institute was founded in 1988 by a group of academic and industry leaders, including the organization’s first president, Makoto Nonaka, M.D., Ph.D., and its first scientific director Kimishige Ishizaka, M.D., Ph.D.

“Immunologists are usually scattered around universities in different departments,” Kronenberg said. “The idea (was) to get a bunch of people with different perspectives but the same focus.”

The Institute took occupancy of its current location, 9420 Athena Circle in the UCSD Science Research Park, in 2006. The state-of-the-art laboratory has 18 divisions, each led by a faculty member. More than 250 employees work the facility.

“The place is run by scientists for scientists. Everyone has to do their own thing, and they have to be successful as judged by their peers,” Kronenberg said, explaining that this translates into securing grants and publishing findings in prestigious medical journals.

LIAI operates on an annual budget of $32 million. The majority of funding – more than $24 million – comes from federal grants. The facility partners with UCSD and Kirin Pharma, a corporate entity that receives rights to license and develop some of the organization’s intellectual property in exchange for funding.

“We’re like the professors you had in school so part of it is intellectual fascination,” Kronenberg said. “We focus on the immune system not only because it fascinates us ... but also because we think it has a lot of influence on human health, probably more than any other system.

“The immune system protects you. If you don’t have an immune system, you’ll die of infection. On the other hand, the immune system creates just as much havoc and disease … in the sense that there are a lot of what are called autoimmune or inflammatory diseases, when the system is over-responding. An allergy is actually an inappropriate immune system response.

“What your autoimmune system is supposed to be able to do is discriminate between what is harmful and what is not.”

One of the most important areas under investigation is that of vaccinations.

“Immunology is the study of the immune system, which is primarily white blood cells whose job is to patrol your body to find, detect and destroy cells that are infected or otherwise dangerous to you,” Kronenberg explained. “It’s an amazing system because it has a type of memory.”

Vaccinations use this memory by triggering a controlled response. Researchers have found that this “immune memory” can last up to six decades.

A vaccine “convinces your immune system that you’ve been exposed to something dangerous,” Kronenberg said. “It’s a way of simulating a primary infection, or first infection, so that your immune system is trained or conditioned so that if you do see the real, nasty infectious agent, you respond as if you’ve been exposed previously.”

The problem is that vaccines don’t always work.

“We don’t always know how to do it,” Kronenberg said.

He said lots of research is directed at learning how the body responds to vaccines to better understand their efficacy.

But immunology is a fairly young science that has seen a lot of changes in the last 20 years, said Kronenberg.

“What really has changed is the tools are so much better,” he said. “We can look so much more deeply. We can gather so much more information.”

Computer technology is largely responsible for these advances, and for the last few years, LIAI has hosted the national Immune Epitope Database, a project sponsored by the federal government. The database is a clearinghouse for information about epitopes, protein fragments related to the immune system that exist in cells.

“The purpose of the database is to collect all the information on epitopes ... and to have that information in a searchable form,” Kronenberg said.

LIAI is contracted to maintain the database for seven years.

While there is no benchmark for measuring the success of a research facility such as LIAI, Kronenberg highlighted some of the organization’s recent findings and awards as evidence of the quality of work being done:

*Individual honors include the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Scholar Award (Matthias von Herrath), the Eng Tan Scholar Award of the Arthritis National Research Foundation (Chris Benedict), a Cancer Research Institute Investigator Award (Dirk Zajonc).

*LIAI faculty serve on National Institutes of Health grant review panels, appointments that signal a high degree of respect from peers.

*LIAI researchers have organized international workshops, including the Fourth International Signal Transduction Workshop, the Second International Innate and Adaptive Immunity Workshop, the Federation American Societies for Experimental Biology Autoimmunity Conference, the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies and the Gordon Research Conference on Immunobiology and Immunochemistry.

*The Institute hosts educational conferences for both medical professionals and community members. These seminars are held in the center’s153-seat auditorium.

*LIAI was ranked fifth in the world in a recent survey of scientific publications in terms of citations.

The Institute will launch a year-long celebration of its 20th anniversary with a gala on Nov. 1 at the Del Mar Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe. For information about the fund-raiser, contact Erin Righetti at (858) 752-6542.

To learn more about the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, visit their Web site at



Rewarding Research