Collaboration a Key Theme at Immunology Research Retreat

Immunology research is advancing the development of new therapies for cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and dozens of other diseases and disorders. A collaborative approach that includes multidisciplinary discussions and effective use of shared resources can accelerate the discovery process, according to faculty participants at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Immunology Research Retreat on March 18 at the Lois Pope Life Center.

Dr. Nimer speaking from podium
Stephen Nimer, M.D., emphasized the importance of bringing immunology scientists together.

“Bringing our thought leaders in immunology together results in fruitful discussions to elevate our research programs,” said Henri Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer at the Miller School. “I am excited about the direction our research programs are taking. After all, we achieve our best by working together — that is the basis of team science.”

Welcoming the 75-plus attendees, Stephen Nimer, M.D., director, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Oscar de la Renta Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, and the Miller School’s executive dean for research, emphasized the importance of bringing immunology scientists together.

“We want to continue our upward trajectory, elevating the impact of the research conducted at the Miller School of Medicine,” he said. “Immunology spans many disciplines. The connections and collaborations that are explored through retreats like this will help us identify methods to most effectively invest in this important area.”

Dr. Nimer announced a $500,000 pool of award money to support projects that involve researchers from different departments. “It is important for us to build team science in immunology, bringing together the best researchers to make discoveries. The Miller School has recently supported neuroscience projects in a similar RFA with the purpose of helping fund new ideas that will develop into impactful projects,” he said.

Significant Progress in Immunology and Microbiology

Dr. Malek speaking from podium
Thomas Malek, Ph.D., said that Miller School researchers are advancing cellular and molecular knowledge that can be translated to clinical care.

Thomas Malek, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said that Miller School researchers are making “huge progress” in advancing cellular and molecular knowledge that can be translated to clinical care.

“About 15% of the U.S. population is affected by autoimmune diseases that generate an overactive response,” he said. “At the same time, millions of other individuals are affected by cancer, HIV/AIDS and other persistent infections from an impaired immune response. Immunologists are also studying vaccine technologies to prevent disease or lessen the impact.”

As for the immunology retreat, Dr. Malek said the goal is to expand the Miller School’s research programs by making targeted investments and recruiting more scientists. He highlighted five new basic scientists in his department: John Burnett, Ph.D., associate professor, microbiology and immunology; Defne Bayik Watson, Ph.D. assistant professor, molecular pharmacology and cancer immunology; and Erietta Stelekati, Ph.D.; Kevin Van der Jeught, Ph.D.; and Alejandro Villarino, Ph.D., all assistant professors of microbiology and immunology.

Dr. Malek also cited the work of Maria Abreu, M.D., director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at the Miller School and vice chair of research in the Department of Medicine, who is looking at the risk factors and causes of inflammatory bowel disease; Zhibin Chen, M.D., Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, who is studying autoimmunity and cancer; Robert Levy, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, whose work includes tumor immunology; and Paolo Serafini, Ph.D.,  associate professor of microbiology and immunology, who studying tumors and inflammation. Dr. Malek’s own research includes using low doses of interleukin (IL-2) to suppress inflammatory disorders using a time-release formulation.

Dr. Malek added that grant funding currently totals about $12.5 million for the department, with another $12 million in research funds for other Miller School programs. “We have a National Institutes of Health training grant in translations immunology that supports five pre-doctoral trainees,” he said. “We also give them a direct experience in the clinic, where they can see patients firsthand and learn about the strategies we use to deliver care.”

Three Areas of Immunology Focus

Cancer immunotherapy, diabetes and HIV/AIDS were three areas of focus at the retreat. Lazaros Lekakis, M.D., associate professor of clinical medicine, transplant and cellular therapy at Sylvester, discussed laboratory research and clinical trials for CAR-T cellular therapy for lymphoma patients who fail chemotherapies. “The standard of care has advanced, and most of these patients now go directly to CAR-T treatments rather than salvage chemotherapies,” he said.

Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., professor of infectious disease, spoke about the Miami Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), which takes a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to addressing the continuing HIV/AIDS problem in South Florida. “Despite the availability of antiretroviral therapies, we need a robust strategy to combat the epidemic on our doorstep,” he said. “Ultimately, we would like to achieve a single-shot cure, and our work helps to take research in that direction.”

Matthias von Herrath, Ph.D., professor of medicine and scientific director, Diabetes Research Institution, outlined the importance of laboratory research in developing better immunosuppressant therapies for patients who receive transplants of insulin-producing islet cells. “We are passionate about reaching out to other Miller School researchers in pathology, oncology and other fields,” he said. “There are many opportunities for collaboration.”

Shared Resources Available for Immunology Research

The immunology retreat included an update on the shared resources and services available to immunology researchers.

For instance, last year the Miller School’s Flow Cytometry Shared Resource was recognized as a center of excellence by the International Society for the Advancement of Cytometry — one of only five such centers in the U.S., according to director Eric Wieder, Ph.D., assistant director of Shared Resources and research associate professor at Sylvester.

Sion Williams, Ph.D., research assistant professor and co-director, Onco-Genomics Shared Resource, outlined several genetic sequencing and spatial multiomics tools used by researchers at Sylvester, CFAR and other programs.

Yan Guo, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences, director of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Shared Resource (BBSR), outlined recent growth, including more personnel and equipment. Resources available to researchers include medical imaging and 3D genomic data analysis, he said. “You don’t need to generate genomic data to take advantage of BBSR, and we can help guide researchers to the many consortium databases available to support their studies.”

Several people seated and talking in breakout session
The retreat brought together experts across disciplines to accelerate the immunology discovery process.

Dr. Nimer added that the Sylvester Data Portal has information on more than 3,000 tumors, as well as clinical data. “Our IT team is working on novel ways to incorporate population science work into our data as well,” he said.

The CFAR also offers resources for immunology research, said Suresh Pallikkuth, Ph.D., research assistant professor of microbiology and immunology. “We want to develop an integrated, centralized laboratory core and promote collaborative studies across Florida,” he said.                        

Following the presentations, researchers gathered in breakout groups to discuss the next steps in advancing basic and clinical studies, and gave brief reports of their recommendations.

Jashodeep Datta, M.D., assistant professor of surgical oncology at Sylvester, suggested leveraging current resources, such a biorepositories, and boosting collaboration with clinicians to bring more clinical trials to patients. That approach was supported by Dr. Levy and Michael Kolber, M.D., professor of medicine, director, Comprehensive AIDS Program, and vice-chair of compliance, quality and care transformation. “We have some great resources,” said Dr. Kolber. “We just need to build awareness and take advantage of those services.”

Tags: Dean Henri Ford, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Dr. Stephen Nimer, immunology, immunotherapy, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center