The Yale School of Medicine has created a new Department of Immunobiology, becoming one of the few schools in the nation to devote an entire department to the growing field.

Originally founded as an outgrowth of the department of pathology in 1988, the immunobiology program was promoted to full departmental standing after faculty petitioned the administration for the structural change, the medical school announced Wednesday. Until now, the program was only a section of the medical school that could have more easily been eliminated if it were not successful or robust enough, but the newly created department will allow the study of immunobiology at Yale to continue to expand, officials from School of Medicine said.

As a department, the immunobiology program will have a greater amount of stability and permanence but will not undergo significant administrative changes in terms of resources, officials said. The new status is primarily a reflection of how much the program has flourished since its conception, Immunobiology Department chair Richard Flavell said.

“Although it started off as just a small unit, it has become very successful over the years,” he said. “As the program matured, it only made sense for it to become its own department.”

Immunology is a branch of biomedical science that covers all aspects of the immune system. The term “immunobiology” used at the medical school reflects the original Yale immunology researchers’ idea that the study should focus on immune system biology at the molecular level, immunobiology professor Joe Craft said.

Medical school professors said the elevation of the program from section status is also important because of how rare Yale’s commitement to the discipline is. Although many medical schools teach immunology as a component of another discipline, Flavell said, there are only a handful of universities in the country with a distinct department devoted to it.

The University of Washington in Seattle and Duke University are among the few schools that have recently created independent immunology departments. But most schools either combine immunology with areas such as microbiology or pathology, or scatter immunologists in an array of different departments, immunobiology professor David Schatz said.

“Most places have made a decision to organize immunology differently,” he said. “I think the way Yale does it is better. We have a unified group who make sure this important discipline is properly developed and nurtured.”

The administration is also creating a new section of study within the department called Human and Translational Immunology, Craft said. The department’s expansion into HIT will include both the recruitment of six new faculty members and a move to a new building, he said.

“This new section will be devoted to the translation of basic science into new medicines and treatments,” Craft said.

The HIT section will be housed in the Amistad building, which is under construction and will be completed this spring.

From its conception nearly two decades ago, Yale’s idea of an independent immunobiology section was groundbreaking, Schatz said. It was the first freestanding section of immunology in the country, which was a gutsy step for the administration, he said.

“It was a bit of a gamble in a sense to commit space, resources and energy to a discipline that was relatively new,” Schatz said. “But the section was successful beyond anyone’s dreams, and it has become clear that this is an absolutely central discipline for research.”

When Yale first started the immunology section, the administration was unsure of how the program would fare because it was a relatively new area of study at the time, Craft said. But the program grew through years of grants, publications, and successful graduate research programs. It now comprises 13 primary faculty members, including four investigators at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and has recently been reported the top program in its field in the country, Flavell said.