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Gift launches Yale autoimmunity center

Medicine@Yale, 2019 - November December


The Colton Center’s mission is to identify and nurture research leading to cures

What do type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease have in common? As different as they are in clinical presentation, they share an important characteristic. Each is an autoimmune disease.

More than 80 different autoimmune diseases occur as a result of the immune system attacking the body’s own organs, tissues, and cells, causing inflammation and cell death. Some 23.5 million individuals are affected in the U.S., and the diseases’ prevalence continues to rise. Scientists lack a clear understanding of the causes of autoimmune disorders, limiting their ability to develop safe, effective treatments and preventives.

With a keen interest in autoimmune disease and a shared vision of finding new therapies, philanthropists Judith and Stewart Colton have donated a major gift to establish the Colton Center for Autoimmunity at Yale. Under the direction of Joseph E. Craft, MD, Paul B. Beeson Professor of Medicine and professor of immunobiology, the center will focus on nurturing the development of new diagnostics, therapies, and technology to alleviate autoimmune disorders, improving lives of patients and families.

“Finding the keys to autoimmune disease is one of the most vexing challenges in science,” say the Coltons. “It would do so much for humankind to uncover its causes, and ultimately to develop effective treatments. We think that Joe Craft and his Yale colleagues are uniquely equipped to do this work, and that the Colton Center will be a perfect vehicle through which to succeed.”

The new center’s mission is to identify and support innovative, high-impact research projects with the potential for translation into therapies. To nurture the advancement of early-stage discoveries, the center will support the proof-of-concept and validation studies that are crucial in transforming novel ideas into treatments, devices, and cures.

Craft will work closely with an advisory committee composed of experts in autoimmunity research from Yale as well as other academic institutions and members of the pharmaceutical industry and venture capital firms, to evaluate proposals from Yale’s many schools and academic disciplines.

Craft and the committee will select and monitor unique, well-defined projects that show the most promise, making awards in two categories: pilot grants for exploratory and proof-of-concept activities; and development grants for more firmly grounded projects. Development grants may be extensions of successful pilot grants, or other new projects with great potential.

To ensure an appropriate breadth of proposals for these awards, the center will also evaluate and potentially support ideas that are submitted to other funding sources at Yale that are dedicated to promoting biomedical innovation. A yearly symposium will bring together investigators, donors, philanthropic advisors, advisory committee members, and Yale leadership to review the progress of funded projects.

Craft is well positioned to lead the center. Autoimmune disease has been the focus of his work, both clinically and in the lab. He trained in rheumatology and immunology at Yale and joined the faculty in 1985, where he runs a laboratory devoted to the study of immunological diseases, with particular attention to SLE. He also served as section chief of rheumatology until 2018, when he stepped down to focus on his research.

He has been captivated by the complexities of autoimmune disease since medical school. “As a first-year student, the first patient I ever saw had lupus,” he says. “I’ve thought about that for years—how we could have understood more about her disease and provided better treatment.”

As international leaders in immunology and autoimmunity research, Yale scientists have made many important discoveries that advance understanding of immune system dysfunction. The new center will encourage cross-disciplinary, investigator-initiated research, actively bridging the gaps between research and application. It will provide strategic resources to ensure that research with commercial relevance does not stall due to lack of funding.

“We’re looking for really novel ideas, and sometimes novel ideas beg for support,” says Craft. “The Coltons’ vision and generous gift will enable us to provide that support to move forward ideas that show real promise.”

“The new center will have a substantial, broad impact on the Department of Immunobiology, enabling exciting new ideas to be tested and accelerating the development of potential new therapeutics for autoimmune diseases,” adds David Schatz, PhD, chair and Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology, and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry. “We are particularly excited by the opportunity to merge basic and translational research to benefit patients.”

“Throughout the School of Medicine, there has long been an emphasis on understanding immunological diseases and thinking creatively about autoimmune disease to find new treatments,” says Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “This center will accelerate our efforts, with the promise of improving the quality of life for millions who suffer from autoimmune diseases.”