Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection

Harnessing the Body's Natural Defenses

If the body were a country, the immune system would be its national guard. And it couldn't ask for a better homeland defense. The immune system is remarkably effective at protecting us against the millions of pathogens that threaten us daily. We have only to see what happens when our immune system is compromised – from disease, for instance, or by immunosuppressant drugs following organ transplantation – to understand the power it wields when it's operating at full strength.

There is no doubt that we have made tremendous progress in understanding how the immune system responds to disease, enabling us to develop vaccines for so many of the illnesses, like polio, smallpox, and whooping cough, that once haunted us.

But infectious diseases we thought we had conquered, like tuberculosis, are returning in new guises that resist standard treatments. And those that have emerged in the past few decades and the more recent past, like toxic shock syndrome, drug-resistant staphylococcus, and avian flu, present dangerous new challenges.

Our goal is to understand and ultimately control how the immune system defends the body at the molecular and cellular levels. ITI teams, comprised of immunologists, pathologists, microbiologists, infectious disease experts, surgeons, scientists, and clinicians, are attacking these challenges from dozens of different avenues, pooling their talents and pouring their energies into four key objectives:

  1. Developing more powerful vaccines for old and new threats
    Every year, 15 million people around the world die from infectious diseases — many we thought we had vanquished long ago. Stanford researchers are racing to learn why microbes develop resistance to drugs, creating new strategies to combat the deadliest infections, collaborating to identify new targets for prevention, and halting the progression of aggressive or emerging diseases.
  2. Reenergizing the immune system
    When we hit middle age, our immune systems decline precipitously. Why is this? And how can we reverse or even prevent the process? We are launching a major new effort to develop effective measures to treat and prevent the diseases that affect us as we grow older.
  3. Eliminating chronic autoimmune diseases
    As we learn more about the basic mechanisms of the immune system, we are seeking to put our new knowledge to work to effectively combat autoimmune diseases like arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis in which the body's defense system turns on itself and attacks its own cells, tissues, and organs.
  4. Revolutionizing transplantation
    The ability to regenerate cells may offer the most promising advance in transplantation medicine since the introduction of the powerful immunosuppressive drugs that prevent rejection of a transplanted liver, kidney, or heart. Working closely with members of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, for example, ITI researchers hope to create new techniques to stimulate the growth of active cells in failing organs.

Tolerance for Transplants

When the Stanford's Liver Transplant Program was established 10 years ago, it focused on merging scientific insights with customized treatment plans. Today the Program is made up of a community of nephrologists, surgeons, pathologists, and immunologists who are applying creative research to clinical problems in pursuit of ways to improve patient care.

"Liver transplantation has come a long way over the years and there are plenty of opportunities at Stanford to advance the field," says Carlos Esquivel, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Transplantation, director of Stanford's Liver Transplant Program, and the Arnold and Barbara Silverman Professor in Pediatric Transplantation. "Our next steps involve using donor stem cells to induce tolerance, creating an artificial liver as an external back-up system, and developing better mechanisms for preserving the organ."

Looking Forward

A generation ago, the field of immunology could be taught in a single day of medical school. Today we recognize the immense power of the immune system and its potential both to protect us and to fail us. As we seek to fully understand the complex machinery of infection and immunity, we are working to quickly translate that knowledge into treatments for the benefit of people around the world.

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