Press Releases

2004 Releases

U.S. Awards $20.5 Million Biodefense Grant to Harvard School of Public Health to Study Immune System Response to Pathogens

For immediate release: January 26, 2004 

Boston, MA- The federal government has awarded Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) a $20.5 million biodefense grant to study the immune system response to pathogens. The grant, which will span a 4.5 year period, is the largest grant to date to the School for biodefense research. HSPH is also receiving federal funds for leadership training for public health preparedness in a bioterrorism crisis. The new grant is from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the project is titled “Arming the Immune System Against Pathogens.”

The project will be led by Dr. Laurie Glimcher, Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at HSPH.

Said HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom, “The School is gratified to receive this award, which will aid in global understanding of the immune system response to attack by infectious agents, whether naturally-occurring or intentional. Our national security depends increasingly on vigorous basic research and a strong public health infrastructure to protect public health at all times.”

The outcome of an infection with any given pathogen depends both upon the nature of the pathogen, and the response of the host. Controlling the host-pathogen interaction for the benefit of the host thus requires an understanding both of the pathogen and of the host’s immune response. Faculty in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at HSPH, who study the immune response and the host-pathogen interaction of naturally occurring diseases, are uniquely equipped to bring these components together.

An effective immune response against microbial agents must be of both appropriate magnitude and type. Cell-mediated immunity (Type 1) relies on a subset of T helper lymphocytes that induces both inflammatory and cytotoxic responses essential for destruction of intracellular pathogens such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Francisella tularensis which causes the respiratory disease tularemia. Generation of humoral (Type 2) immunity requires activation of B cells to produce antibodies. Among HSPH faculty, Glimcher and Michael Grusby will study early molecular checkpoints in the development of each of these immune response types while Igor Kramnik will examine genetic determinants of host resistance to pathogens in vivo. Dr. Eric Rubin’s laboratory explores the genetic constraints of the pathogen itself.

These HSPH investigators join with Dr. Gregory Petsko, Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry; Director, Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center at Brandeis University, specializing in protein structure determination and the MannKind biotechnology company in Valencia, CA focused on the immune system with expertise in drug discovery to develop a novel strategy for biodefense. The overall objective of this interdependent, interdisciplinary team is to develop molecules that modulate the host immune system so as to augment the protective effects of vaccines against microbial pathogens.

“We are thrilled that the award will enable us to pursue this work,” said Glimcher. “This project will certainly also enhance general understanding of how the immune system works and could lead to applications for dealing with both familiar and new infectious agents.”

Rubin said he will be working with the tularemia agent, “to determine how it is innately drug-resistant, identifying the operative genes and ways to get around this resistance.” There has been a recent, natural tularemia outbreak on Martha’s Vineyard where infected rabbits have caused respiratory disease, primarily in gardeners. HSPH researchers have been investigating the outbreak.

“We were interested in tularemia before interest arose in it as a potential bioterrorist weapon because it has a lot of parallels to the host/pathogen relationship in tuberculosis,” said Rubin. “We think perhaps understanding tularemia will help us understand TB better, science that will generally benefit many populations suffering right now.”

For further information contact:
Robin Herman
Director of Communications