In the early 1980s, the leadership team at Virginia Mason made the important decision to establish a biomedical research center focused on immunology. Immunology at that time was an emerging field, anticipating a future era of medical applications. In this brief article, we look back on the last 30 years, reflecting on the role that Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason has played in transforming our understanding of autoimmune and immune-mediated diseases, helping bring numerous new therapies to patients with these and related disorders.
'80S: EARLY SUCCESS
The first step was taken in 1985, with the recruitment of Gerald Nepom, MD, PhD, to lead this transition. For the next decade, BRI (then known as Virginia Mason Research Center) built a reputation as a powerhouse for understanding the genetic contributions to autoimmune diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and celiac disease. BRI led the development and application of new technologies for identifying genes associated with disease susceptibility and performed pioneering studies in which these genes were experimentally manipulated to foster understanding of their function. With this success came recognition—the National Institutes of Health highlighted BRI’s work as one of the cornerstones of arthritis research in the 80’s. It also generated funding—BRI’s external grant funding grew tenfold over the first decade. Finally it brought growth: Several new investigators joined BRI during this era, bringing new insights, technologies and energy to the quest for answers to autoimmune diseases.
'90S: NEW THERAPIES
In 1991, together with Virginia Mason, BRI recruited Daniel Furst, MD, to lead the clinical research programs, a decision that coincided with the introduction of “biologics”—genetically engineered proteins that mimic natural immune regulation—into clinical trials. BRI became a center for testing new immune modulators in patients with arthritis and other disorders, the beginnings of the Institute’s current emphasis on “bedside to bench” research that bridges the gap between discovery and treatment.
Throughout the 1990s, BRI pioneered the development of tools and concepts that linked autoimmune genes with autoimmune patients. This included detailed understanding—at the molecular level—of how mistakes by the immune system lead to disease. This contributed to a fundamental shift in which immune intervention became a prominent target within the broader scientific community. The BRI Board recognized the opportunities this presented for medical impact, and in the mid-1990s made the commitment that led to the state-of-the-art facility now known as Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason.
NOW: INTERNATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Development of BRI’s new facility, and its growing international stature, enabled a broader vision, one that recognized the potential for major impact and growth. Steven Ziegler, PhD, Carla Greenbaum, MD, and Jane Buckner, MD, among others, established dynamic programs at BRI that focused on basic immunology, clinical trials and translational research, respectively, including recruitment of additional investigators—with nearly 25 principal investigators now working at BRI, supported by nearly 300 staff.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Benaroya Research Institute
- led the development of targeted patient registries and sample repositories for the study of autoimmune diseases linked to clinical trials of experimental therapeutics;
- became a leader in type 1 diabetes clinical trials that showed it was possible to stop disease progression by interrupting immune mechanisms;
- and continued to discover fundamental new insights into specific genes, molecules, and cells that hold the key to understanding causes and cures of immune disorders.
BRI’s history of leadership in this area of biomedical research is now widely recognized, and BRI investigators are frequently called on to advise other institutions, organize scientific conferences and collaborate on large-scale initiatives for novel therapies. What started as a small program in autoimmune genetics is now a leader of major international programs such as the Immune Tolerance Network and TrialNet. BRI is still committed—as it was in 1985—to the core mission of linking fundamental discoveries in basic immunology with opportunities for medical interventions that improve patients’ lives.
To learn more, visit About the Institute.
June 1, 2015
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