Salk receives $11.5 million


By Deborah Hatch

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies received $11.5 million from Trustee G. H. Thyssen on behalf of the recently established Nomis Foundation in Europe. Thyssen has been a Trustee since 1998, and the gift is the premier gift of the foundation. It is being used to launch an Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis Program, focusing on the basic research required to understand how the body fights infectious diseases. The money will allow for the hiring of new researchers.

“It is a major step forward for Salk and allows us to do something in the strategic plan,” said Dr. Marsha Chandler, executive vice president of the Salk Institute, of one of the largest gifts in the institute’s history.

The objectives of the program are to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms of bacteria; to understand the roles of innate and sustained immunity in viruses and bacteria; and to understand the role of inflammation and major diseases.

Inflammation occurs when an infection develops. It affects the cells of the body and is the first line of defense within the immune system. The program will investigate how the immune system prevents disease on the cellular and molecular level. Inflammation can also be present in people who have acquired diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Much of the damage from diseases has to do with inflammation.

“Many diseases are linked with inflammation,” Dr. Chandler said. The new program allows for the crossover of information into many disciplines. Currently, the Salk Institute has programs in Neurosciences, Molecular Biology and Genetics, and Plant Biology. They study diseases ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disease.

“It will set up a new node,” said Dr. Chandler. Scientists studying cellular and molecular mechanisms will be able to work with those studying inflammation and discover what happens in the basic level of the body when fighting disease.

“The grant is strictly to hire three new faculty in the area of inflammation,” said Inder Verma Ph.D., faculty at Salk and recipient of the 2008 Vilcek Foundation Prize. Verma is a professor in the Genetic Laboratory, and sees many benefits in the addition of the new program, including more collaboration and mutual equipment.

“For patients who have diabetes, inflammation is a very important component,” said Verma. Questioning when inflammation starts and stops and understanding how it relates to diseases are complexities for the new team as inflammation is becoming an important component and relates to illnesses across the board.

“It is an area which is of great excitement to us and touches fundamental principles of diseases,” said Verma. His lab studies the induction of genes in order to produce essential protein. He also serves on the committee seeking candidates for the new faculty positions.