Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI) has made game-changing discoveries and significantly expanded our research and funding in recent years. This progress – combined with welcoming Jane Buckner, MD, as president – inspired us to update our strategic plan and embrace a broader vision: Create a healthy immune system for every individual by pursuing better ways to predict, prevent, reverse and cure immune disorders.
This vision extends far beyond autoimmune disease and is the next step in an evolution that started more than 30 years ago. BRI initially focused on type 1 diabetes (T1D) and gradually expanded to study other diseases. This led to a key insight: A wide variety of disorders are triggered when the immune system falls out of balance.
“A balanced immune system knows when and how to attack bacteria and other threats,” Dr. Buckner says. “When the immune system becomes imbalanced, it might overreact to harmless substances and cause allergies, mistakenly attack healthy cells to cause autoimmune disease, or fail to hunt down cancer cells.”
Our new plan positions us to pinpoint why immune imbalances occur, and to pursue treatments that return the immune system to a healthy state.
“BRI is home to world-renowned experts of the immune system, and our updated strategy helps us apply that expertise in new directions,” Dr. Buckner says. “This will accelerate progress toward breakthrough diagnostic tests, prevention strategies and therapies that help many more people live longer, healthier lives.”
One key strategic goal is to create a detailed portrait of what healthy immune systems look like, so we can understand how they fall out of balance.
To do this, we’re expanding our push to recruit healthy people to donate blood to our biorepositories. Our investigators study these samples to identify a wide range of healthy immune systems.
We also recently announced a potentially gamechanging partnership with the new Allen Institute for Immunology. Fueled by a $125 million gift from the late Paul Allen, this partnership unites five top research organizations around the goal of understanding how the immune system functions. The partners include BRI; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; the University of California San Diego; the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; and the University of Pennsylvania.
BRI’s role includes creating the most detailed portrait yet of the immune system in healthy people. We’ll also study samples from individuals aged 25 to 35 and 55 to 65, analyzing changes over time.
“We’ll be able to see how healthy immune systems change as people age, and how lifestyle and environmental factors alter immune systems,” Dr. Buckner says. “This will help us understand which changes are normal and which ones contribute to disease.”
This will set the stage for understanding how and why immune systems fall out of balance and move us closer to another strategic goal: Find ways to restore balance and stop immune-related diseases at the source.
Complex problems often require collaborations to solve them, and BRI is already partnering with pharmaceutical companies to investigate and test a new wave of immune therapies. This helps ensure these therapies are safe and effective. It also gives our researchers insights that help them pursue better ways to stop disease.
“We’re moving closer to therapies that restore balance by helping the immune system calm down and stop autoimmune diseases and allergies, or helping it ramp up and attack cancer,” Dr. Buckner says.
Good to Great
Our strategic plan also includes other important elements, such as creating four new “centers of excellence that make it easier for researchers in different areas to work together. This shortens the path to discovery by helping us investigate scientific questions from every angle. It also enhances the collaborative culture that has helped BRI come so far so fast.
“BRI has played an outsize role in improving prevention and treatment of diseases like T1D and food allergies,” Dr. Buckner says. “We’re excited to make similar advances for many more diseases and to continue becoming one of the world’s great research institutes.”
Originally published in BRING IT ON newsletter - Spring 2019
February 13, 2019
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