La Jolla institute probes mysteries of the human immune system

By Joe Tash


Many people think of the human immune system as our top defender against disease, but they might be unaware that an improperly functioning immune system can wreak havoc with the body, causing serious illnesses such as juvenile-onset diabetes, Crohn’s disease, asthma and multiple sclerosis.

For more than two decades, scientists at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology have been trying to unlock the secrets of the immune system, and through those efforts, discover new ways of fighting illness and disease.

Since 1996, the institute has occupied a 140,000-square-foot building on land it leases from UCSD, where its scientists collaborate with colleagues at the university and in the private sector, hoping their discoveries will one day lead to effective therapies and treatments.

Leading the institute and its 325 employees is Mitchell Kronenberg, who carries the titles of president and scientific director. A former professor at UCLA, Kronenberg directs his own research projects, teaches at UCSD, and carries out his administrative duties at the institute. He joined the institute in 1997 and was appointed president in 2003.

The institute has been successful in recruiting scientists from around the world in part, said Kronenberg, because “at a place like this you get to really focus on your work.”

Currently, three discoveries made by the institute’s scientists have advanced to clinical trials: They involve a potential asthma treatment, a method of preventing rejection of transplanted tissue, and Crohn’s disease, Kronenberg said. The institute hopes to bring two more discoveries to clinical trials over the next two years.

Typically, Kronenberg said, it takes 10 to 15 years to bring an idea from the bench to the bedside.

If a discovery is turned into a successful drug, the institute would receive licensing fees, which it would use to fund future research projects. The nonprofit institute runs on an annual budget of $42 million, 75 percent to 80 percent of which comes from federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, Kronenberg said. The institute raises the rest through donations, licensing fees and contract research with its primary sponsor, the Japanese pharmaceutical company Kyowa Hakko Kirin California Inc., or KKC.

KKC paid for most of the construction costs for the institute’s building, and also provides ongoing operational funding, in exchange for the first right to negotiate for the institute’s discoveries, Kronenberg said.

Along with KKC, the institute’s other key partner is UCSD.

Gary S. Firestein, a professor of medicine at the UCSD medical school and the school’s dean of translational medicine, said the institute is an important member of San Diego’s biomedical research community.

“Over the years, they have developed a truly outstanding research program with top-flight researchers with international reputations,” Firestein said.

Scientists from the institute have collaborated with their counterparts at the university on research projects, and they have also helped train students, Firestein said.

“They are active contributors to campus life,” Firestein said. “They collaborate not only with research but with our training mission.”

Currently, the institute has 21 research labs run by scientists who are also adjunct professors at UCSD. Kronenberg’s lab is conducting research in bacterial infections and other areas, and his wife, Hilde Cheroutre, oversees a lab conducting studies in such areas as inflammatory bowel disease and immune system memory, Kronenberg said.

Another area of research at the institute is vaccinations, which has become a controversial subject in recent years, as some parents decide against having their children receive all or some of the recommended shots.

Among the fears of such parents is that vaccinations have been linked to autism. However, Kronenberg said, such a linkage has not been scientifically verified.

“The cost-benefit equation is in favor of vaccination,” Kronenberg said. “It’s wrong to claim there aren’t risks, but the benefits outweigh the risks.”

In order to keep the institute’s numerous labs busy, as they were during a recent tour given by Kronenberg for journalists with this newspaper, scientists must prevail in the highly competitive grant process at the National Institutes of Health. “That’s the audience we really have to impress,” he said.

Outside donations and funding is needed for what Kronenberg called “high-risk, high-impact research,” which might involve a promising, but untested idea, because the NIH is reluctant to provide grants for such projects. Younger, less-established scientists also are less likely to win NIH grants, he said.

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