Inflammation research receives $10M donation

The Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Immunobiology, which Dean Robert Alpern called one of the best in the country, just got stronger — on Monday, the program received a $10 million contribution from the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

This gift, which Alpern said is one of the largest the Department of Immunobiology has ever received, was donated specifically to the laboratories of Department Chair Richard Flavell and immunobiology professor Ruslan Medzhitov. Flavell and Medzhitov are currently investigating the relationship between inflammation and prevalent human diseases. While inflammation has been studied for almost a century, Medzhitov said that up until roughly six years ago, the symptom was only studied in the context of acute infections. Now, the scientific community has realized that almost every human disease, including obesity, diabetes and cancer, is inflammatory, he added.

“This is a new development — that inflammation applies to the pathology of many human diseases — and we don’t have the knowledge yet to explain why that is,” Medzhitov said.

To pursue this question, Medzhitov said he plans on studying the fundamental mechanisms of inflammation in animal and human models and on exploring why the normal, homeostatic state is suppressed when the inflammatory, emergency state is activated. His goal is to determine why inflammation is such a prominent symptom in chronic human diseases, he added.

Flavell said he thinks the foundation was interested in his and Medzhitov’s research because both projects are “at the forefront” of studying a common symptom in human diseases. Flavell’s research is focused on identifying the inflammation-causing bacteria found in humans suffering from conditions such as Crohn’s disease, childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, he said. So far, Flavell said he has shown how harmful bacteria cause inflammation in mice, adding that he plans on using the extra funding to sequence the DNA of bacteria-causing inflammation in humans.

“What we’re really trying to understand is how inflammation is caused in very common diseases that affect people in the developed world,” Flavell said, adding that he has noticed increased awareness within the research community that most human pathologies are in some way associated with inflammation.

Alpern said Flavell and Medzhitov are “outstanding researchers with outstanding ideas for how to transform our understanding of inflammation,” adding that the Blavatnik Family Foundation has chosen the best people to advance the field of immunobiology.

The Blavatnik gift is important to the field of inflammation research because the problem has to be addressed from multiple angles and thus requires a greater level of funding, Medzhitov said. Given budget cuts in the National Institutes of Health, this research would be impossible under the normal mechanisms of funding alone, he added.

Len Blavatnik, an American industrialist and philanthropist who heads the foundation, said in an April 8 Yale News press release that he is excited by the theory presented by Flavell’s and Medzhitov’s labs. The theory “represents a paradigm shift in the science of chronic diseases and may lead to new prevention strategies, treatments and even cures for many disorders,” he added.

Medzhitov received an award for young scientists from the Blavatnik Family Foundation in 2007, and he and Flavell were jointly awarded the 2013 Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science in February.

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