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Studying autoimmunity

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2020 - Winter


Researchers hope that the Colton Center for Autoimmunity at Yale will yield results over the next 10 years.

Throughout his career at Yale, Joseph E. Craft, MD, HS ’80, FW ’85, has studied autoimmunity, specifically systemic lupus erythematosus. Now he’s heading a new project that will span the university, encouraging researchers from disciplines inside and outside medicine to seek ways to move existing knowledge about the more than 80 autoimmune diseases from the laboratory to the clinic.

“The goal is to take what we know about autoimmunity from our research at Yale and what we have learned from others and move those ideas into practical applications,” said Craft, the Paul B. Beeson Professor of Medicine (Rheumatology) and professor of immunobiology. “Many of the proposals will come from immunologists, but by no means is it meant to be restricted to experts in autoimmunity, nor is it meant to be restricted to experts in immunology. We want the best ideas: things that may be novel, things that may be untried and untested, things that may be pie in the sky.”

The Colton Center for Autoimmunity at Yale is an outgrowth of an initiative that began at NYU Langone Health in 2013. The Judith and Stewart Colton Center for Autoimmunity was launched to find new ways of diagnosing and treating autoimmune diseases. Although centered at NYU, the program has recruited researchers and clinicians throughout the scientific community. Creating a satellite center at Yale with Craft in charge was an obvious choice—he sits on the NYU center’s advisory board.

The satellite center at Yale will receive funding for up to 10 years. In its first year, Craft said, he hopes to fund about eight proposals. “The idea is to use funds every year to invest in ideas to develop intellectual property,” he said. “That’s the first step to getting those into translatable initiatives.”

Research proposals from across the university are welcome, Craft said. “You don’t have to be an expert in autoimmunity to have a good idea. It could be from engineering, the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, chemistry,” he said, adding that faculty at all levels are encouraged to apply. “That only enhances the ability of the program to get things done. Biomedical engineering has been very successful in thinking about ideas on how to treat cancer. If they can bring those ideas to autoimmune disease, that would be great.”

An advisory committee of four faculty in immunobiology, two academics from outside Yale, and three private sector members with experience in technology transfer and immune-mediated diseases will review grant applications. The committee will meet once each year in person and throughout the year in videoconferences.

The application process, Craft said, will be streamlined. “We would like to shorten that to a couple of months and make the hurdle for applying relatively simple,” he said. “Putting the idea on paper ideally would be done in a day or two. Our goal is to eliminate the bureaucracy and eliminate the timing.”

The new center also fits in with the University Science Strategy Commitment (USSC), said Michael C. Crair, PhD, the William Ziegler III Professor of Neuroscience, professor of ophthalmology and visual science, and vice provost of research for Yale University. He will serve as an ex officio member of the center’s advisory board. The USSC will invest in strong areas of science at Yale, specifically inflammation, neuroscience, data science, energy science, and environment.

“Inflammation is one of the top areas where we’d like to build, and autoimmune is one of the pieces within the broad area of inflammation,” Crair said. “We want to make sure that what we are doing in autoimmunity is coordinated with what we are doing in all the inflammation sciences.”

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