With the aim of advancing understanding of the molecular, cellular, and genetic underpinnings of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, and to find new and better treatments, Yale School of Medicine (YSM) has entered into a research partnership with the global pharmaceutical company AbbVie. The North Chicago, Ill.-based AbbVie, formed in 2013 when Abbott Laboratories divided into two companies, will provide $14.5 million over a five-year period to fund research led by ysm faculty.

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, autoimmunity is the second-leading cause of chronic disease in the U.S., affecting some 50 million individuals. There is also growing recognition among scientists that immune-mediated inflammatory processes are at the root of a wide array of common and deadly disorders, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Catalyzed by Yale’s preeminence in immunobiology research, the partnership marks another milestone in the formation of industry-academia partnerships at Yale. “This is a collaboration between an industry leader in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and one of the best academic immunology research programs,” says Richard A. Flavell, Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Immunobiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator. “Our shared goal is the development of better treatments for immunologic diseases.”

The AbbVie-Yale Collaboration in Immunobiology will be directed by a five-member joint steering committee. Members from Yale are Flavell; Jordan S. Pober, M.D., Ph.D., Bayer Professor of Translational Medicine, professor of dermatology and pathology, and director of the Department of Immunobiology’s Human and Translational Immunology Program; and Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D., professor of immunobiology and of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and an HHMI investigator. Members from AbbVie are Lisa M. Olson, Ph.D., vice president of immunology, and Hamish Allen, Ph.D., director of global external research in immunology. “We’re very excited because we see it as a new way to strengthen our science,” Olson says.

Since the founding of Yale’s immunobiology program in 1988 it has become a world leader in basic immunology research. Among the key breakthroughs made at Yale was the 1997 discovery by the late Charles A. Janeway Jr., M.D., and Ruslan M. Medzhitov, Ph.D., David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology and an HHMI investigator, that components of the innate immune system called toll-like receptors (TLRs) prompt the expression of genes that provide the adaptive immune system with the necessary advance intelligence to do its job. The study of TLRs is now one of the most active and important research areas in immunobiology.

Flavell’s recent work on metabolic syndrome, a condition associated with the Western high-fat diet, suggests that interactions between our genes, our diet, and the microbes that inhabit our bodies have an important influence on inflammatory responses and on the incidence of such diseases as obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Pober, an authority on changes in vascular endothelial cells (which form the lining of blood vessels) that target white blood cells to particular sites, recently discovered that pericytes, the cells that support endothelium in small blood vessels, also regulate inflammation by restricting the number of white blood cells that exit vessels, a finding that could lead to new drugs to treat inflammatory diseases.

Iwasaki and colleagues have recently developed a novel vaccine technology that recruits immune cells into vaginal tissue to provide long-term protection against genital herpes infections. Her group is now exploring ways to adapt this strategy to other tissues to fight a range of infections, including HIV and infectious disorders of the skin, respiratory tract, and digestive system.

AbbVie, in turn, is known not only for its pharmaceutical research and drug discovery capabilities, but for an array of specialized strengths. “They’re superb at certain kinds of automation of processes, at chemistry, and at generating biological reagents,” says Flavell, adding that the Collaboration will give Yale researchers access to proprietary AbbVie molecules known as dual-variable domain antibodies, which combine two targets, making them valuable experimental and treatment tools.

“Yale and AbbVie have highly complementary skills and interests in the field of immunology, and we look forward to a productive collaboration,” says Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, Sterling Professor of Genetics, and professor of cellular and molecular physiology.

The $14.5 million in funding is available to School of Medicine faculty with primary or secondary appointments in the Department of Immunobiology. Of the 14 grants awarded, six will be four-year “full research” grants of $1 million each, and eight will be two-year pilot project grants of $160,000 each, to support early-stage research. Of the annual payments, $2 million has been allocated toward funding for HHMI investigators beginning in the Collaboration’s second year.

Following an application period, grant awards will be determined by members of the joint steering committee. The grants will be awarded in stages, staggered over the Collaboration’s five-year term. In addition, the Collaboration enables lab meetings, a retreat, and an annual joint scientific symposium.

The Collaboration has its roots in the longstanding relationship that Flavell built with Abbott Laboratories in the 1990s. As part of that relationship, Flavell helped guide Abbott’s acquisition of a research facility in Worcester, Mass. Now known as the AbbVie Bioresearch Center, that facility is less than a two-hour drive from Yale, a factor Olson cites as important. “Our proximity allows for close interactions between AbbVie and Yale scientists, which will greatly advance a deep understanding of the biology around potential new therapeutics,” Olson says. “People at AbbVie are incredibly motivated to make new medicine.”

Says Flavell, “This is a genuinely synergistic connection between [institutions with] two sets of complementary skills, with very common interests. It’s a true symmetry.”