New UVa. research center to target autism, MS, other complex diseases

A new center of neuroimmunology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine will bring together researchers from across disciplines to unlock the secrets of complex diseases and disorders ranging from multiple sclerosis to autism to Alzheimer’s.

The creation of the Brain Immunology & Glia center, known as BIG, positions UVA among the leaders of a young but increasingly important field of research. Neuroimmunology seeks to better understand the role of the immune system in the health of the brain and nervous system, laying the groundwork for future treatments and cures. “It’s very difficult to manipulate the brain directly, yet we can manipulate the immune system in many ways,” says Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, the director of BIG. “People are now looking more and more at targeting the immune system to defend a diseased brain.”

BIG is housed in UVA’s Department of Neuroscience but already includes researchers from five other departments. Kevin S. Lee, PhD, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and an enthusiastic architect and leader of interdisciplinary studies, notes the importance of breaking down the barriers between disciplines to advance this promising field: “This,” he says, “is where the discoveries come from that lead to future therapies.”

“The idea is that a lot of neurological disorders have an immunological component, and it’s targetable,” Lee says. “I think this type of center has a unique opportunity to have breakthroughs. … There aren’t a lot of centers around the world that are working on this.”

In addition to the experts already on board, a key goal for the center is to hire two new faculty members. Kipnis is eager to hear from those who want to be part of the work. “I would love people to come and join us,” he says. “The beauty of science is when people from different disciplines meet together and discuss ideas – and this center will allow that. The whole idea is to bring people from different disciplines and ignite their interest.”

Alban Gaultier, PhD, a multiple sclerosis researcher at UVA involved in the new center, says he is excited about the possibilities ahead. “This is an opportunity for me to raise the bar for my science because I will have access to Dr. Lee’s and Dr. Kipnis’ expertise as well as other specialists in different fields,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time.”

The new center is receiving support from a wide array of sources, including the School of Medicine, the Dean’s Office, UVA’s Vice President for Research and the National Institutes of Health. “They have recognized this and put their resources into it as well, and that’s really greatly appreciated,” Lee says. “Without their support, these types of endeavors just won’t take off.”

Steven T. DeKosky, MD, Vice President and Dean of the School of Medicine and a neuroscience researcher himself, says the new center will play a vital role in fostering the collaborations that will lead to future breakthroughs. “The brain is an incredibly complex organ. When disease attacks the brain, the additional complexity demands innovative ways to study the disorder and experts in several fields to optimize understanding,” DeKosky says. “BIG is one of our efforts to support brain research, a major focus of our Neuroscience Center of Excellence initiative, and Dr. Kipnis is an extraordinarily bright, thoughtful leader of what we hope will be a great differentiator and a source of hope for our patients. It will also be a great place for our faculty to work together and train the neuroscientists of the future. This is where neuroscience and new therapies meet.”


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