National Institutes of Health Awards Benaroya Research Institute $8 Million to Lead New Asthma and Allergic Diseases Cooperative Research Center

Seattle, WA
Collaboration with UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s Research Institute
will focus on immune system’s responses to allergens in lungs

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason a five-year, $8 million grant to lead a cooperative study on the immune system’s responses to allergens in the lungs. Over the next five years, investigators at BRI, UW Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute will collaborate to gain insights into the lung epithelium – the interface between the inside of the lung and the outside environment – to inform the development of new treatments and therapies for allergies and asthma. One in four people in the United States are allergic, asthmatic, or both.

“Because we’re using cells from both children and adults, as well as a culture system that closely mimics the actual structure of the lung, our findings will positively impact the lives of people living with allergies and asthma,” said Director of BRI’s Immunology Research Program Dr. Steven Ziegler. “This study wouldn’t be possible without collaboration; we’re grateful for the collegiality of the immunology community in Seattle, through which we’re able to fight immune system diseases together.”

Dr. Ziegler will lead the project along with eight other principal investigators from BRI, UW Medicine and SCRI. UW Medicine will supply samples from adults, and SCRI will provide samples from children, with researchers from both institutions as co-principal investigators alongside researchers from BRI.

“A major advantage of this grant,” said Dr. Marion Pepper, University of Washington assistant professor of immunology and UW Medicine researcher, “is that it draws upon the distinct skill sets of scientists from three major Seattle biomedical research institutions. Because of this, the collaboration has the potential to provide a basic understanding of how viruses and allergens can act in tandem to promote the asthmatic response.”

The research will focus on testing whether the airway epithelium cells, the layer of cells forming the lung epithelium, is the major regulator of responses to outside attack from allergens and respiratory viruses. Based on previous studies, the cooperative predicts that airway epithelium cells from asthmatics will differ in how this regulation controls infections and allergic responses. Each project will test a different aspect of this response, with the epithelium providing the common link between them.

“We believe that improved understanding of the role of the airway epithelium in asthma will lead to novel treatments,” said Dr. Jason Debley, a pediatric pulmonary specialist and SCRI principal investigator for the grant. “We will contribute a unique resource of airway epithelial cells from children with and without asthma that are then grown in an innovative model, which closely approximates the structure of these cells in the lung. Together with our collaborators at BRI and UW Medicine, we will facilitate breakthroughs in our understanding how viruses and allergens worsen asthma.”

This latest grant comes on the heels of a $2.9 million grant that was awarded to BRI last month to expand studies of Interleukin 33, a protein that helps drive the immune response to allergic reactions. BRI researchers discovered this critical pathway in peanut allergy may also extend to other food allergies. Currently there are few available treatments to either prevent or cure food allergies, and available medications only treat symptoms following the onset of the allergic response. Understanding the triggers of a food allergy reaction could help researchers make great strides in identifying new targets for the development of treatment therapies.

BRI and Virginia Mason Medical Center were also recently selected to join the Food Allergy Research & Education Clinical Network, an initiative that aims to accelerate the development of drugs as well as improve the quality of care for patients with food allergies. BRI is one of 28 leading research and care sites nationwide that provides high-quality clinical and sub-specialty food allergy expertise and services, and that is focused on applying new evidence-based knowledge to this important field. These centers also meet high standards for clinical care, teaching and clinical research. Last year, BRI Assistant Member Dr. Erik Wambre was also recognized with a Food Allergy Research & Education investigator award to support research in food allergy, specifically peanut allergy.

“These grant awards speak to the tremendous work taking place at BRI and other research institutions in the region. Together, we are a leading source of innovation and progress in the fight for human health,” said BRI President and Translational Research Program Director Dr. Jane Buckner. “Only through these collaborations among investigators will we be able to turn the tide against these lifelong diseases so that we can move beyond treating and containing them, and instead focus on preventing them from ever taking hold.”

About Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason

Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason is committed to winning the fight against autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis, and immune system diseases such as allergies and asthma. BRI is an internationally recognized medical research institute that accelerates discovery by tackling questions from every angle, translating immunology breakthroughs into clinical therapies and healthier patients. We’re all in this fight together, and BRI is dedicated to collaboration both within our own walls and through the Immune Tolerance Network, Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet and other major cooperative research programs we lead. Visit or follow Benaroya Research Institute on Facebook or Twitter to learn more.

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