Transplant immunologists trying to prevent organ rejection are fundamentally dealing with the same issues as researchers tackling autoimmune diseases: both groups hope to suppress the effects of a harmful hyperactive immune system. In a traditional medical school structure, these two sets of people rarely interact. But a new initiative at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is focused on six unified research themes and is promoting change as well as providing opportunities for cross-disciplinary interactions.
Dr. Smale says the topic of depression is one of the major issues they want to tackle on a campus-wide level. In fact, depression was selected as one of two grand challenges by UCLA as a widely impactful area of focus associated with the Centennial Campaign.
"It impacts such a broad range of people and extends through psychiatry, neurology, basic neurobiology and the social sciences," says Dr. Smale.
Immunity, inflammation, infection and transplantation all relate to immunology. "Understanding basic microbiology is important but so is figuring out therapies and ways to attack infection," he says.
For example, the biggest challenge the organ transplant field faces is rejection. The goal is to develop improved immunosuppressant strategies or to figure out how to get transplant recipients to tolerate the transplanted organ.
Dr. Smale explains the rationale for putting the I3T disciplines together is that they are all related to immunology, and the benefits of cross-fertilization and interaction are well-established. "The great successes in cancer immunotherapy did not emerge from biologists working in isolation but rather from immunologists uncovering basic knowledge of the immune system, recognizing the potential clinical value of that knowledge, and then working with cancer researchers to translate the findings to the clinic," he says.
The knowledge that led to the cancer immunotherapy successes may, in turn, benefit efforts to develop improved immune-system-based therapies for infectious diseases.
Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer and aging are four active metabolism-research areas. Although scientists in some ways lost interest in metabolism during the molecular biology revolution, Dr. Smale says the field has made a comeback.
"For example, there are important metabolic differences between cancer cells and normal cells with those differences being critical for the cancer cells to survive and thrive." he says. "This led to a resurgence in the field with the thought that if most cancer cells rely on these key metabolic changes, maybe that's what we should be targeting."
Cancer research is synonymous with the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. The center has been remarkably successful in terms of generating a number of novel therapies, including Herceptin, the first targeted therapy for cancer. "We have great strength here, both in the development of small-molecule therapies and in cancer immunotherapy," Dr. Smale says.
Regenerative medicine is based in the Broad Stem Cell Research Center, which is a large and prominent home for regenerative medicine. It was chosen as a theme because of the clear potential to develop novel therapies, based on the ability to differentiate and modify stem cells for use in a therapeutic manner.
The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA's cardiovascular research is broad and ambitious, with considerable strengths in the study of heart disease, heart failure, arrhythmias and a number of other areas. This is also one of the initial areas of focus for UCLA's rapidly growing precision medicine program.
"Unified research themes are a way to break down traditional departmental silos and silos between basic researchers and clinicians, which have slowed the progression of biomedical research and the development of novel therapies," says Dr. Smale. "In the end, it's all about providing a greater impact for the patient."
By Emily Williams