Immunology Celebrates Major New Role in Biomedicine & 30th Anniversary of Graduate Program

Nadine Taylor-Barnes | April 20, 2020

As the Immunology community of faculty, alumni, graduate students, and postdocs gathered on campus for the 30th anniversary of their graduate program in 2018, there was a great deal to celebrate.

Set against the backdrop of Stanford Immunologists describing their riveting basic science, translational, and clinical research, was the realization among participants of Immunology’s growing prominence in biomedicine. In fact, right now, global recognition of Immunology’s critical role has been established as the world grapples with its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Davis, PhD

“Traditionally, Immunology was considered as one of many ‘support systems’ for human life,” said Mark Davis, PhD, Faculty, who leads the renowned Institute for Immunity, Transplantation & Infection (ITI). “It was viewed principally as the shield against infectious diseases and a serious adversary in organ transplants.” But now, Davis said, the immune system is being recognized as the underpinning “for all major organ systems” and as an active sustainer of many areas of human health. When the immune system is not functioning correctly, it contributes to systemic failures: in cancer, in autoimmune, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s, and in chronic inflammatory and infectious diseases.

Olivia Martinez, PhD, Professor of Surgerywho assumed the dual role of Director of PhD Program in Immunology, and Director of Stanford Immunology, agreed. “Scientists across many disciplines are embracing Immunology, and there is great respect for the knowledge we are bringing forth about basic molecular mechanisms. We are providing the missing links that are solving highly-complex diseases.”

We are poised for a significant paradigm shift: There is increasing recognition of Immunology as the way to tackle many of the most important problems in medicine. And it needs to be studied within the human context.

Mark Davis, PhD

Olivia Martinez, PhD

This recognition of Immunology’s role was further underscored when the Nobel Committee awarded its 2018 Prize for Medicine or Physiology to two immunologists James P. Allison, PhD, and Tasuku Honjo, PhD, for their work in immunotherapy that the committee hailed as establishing “an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.” 

As Immunology’s first PhD Program Director, Patricia Jones, PhD, The Dr. Nancy Chang Professor, Emerita, and Professor of Biology, personally witnessed the sea change. For over seven years, Jones, as Director of Stanford Immunology, oversaw all Immunology training-related activities and guided the department to its present stature. She said, “Immunology is being fully recognized because of the value of its discoveries -- and what those discoveries are telling us about all of human health and disease. Now, Immunology is represented in every medical specialty in medical schools, and it is the number one area for drug development among pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms.”

Additionally, the general public is becoming acutely aware of the field. “There is huge public interest in Immunology now, driven primarily by the discoveries in cancer immunotherapy,” said Davis. “Consider the fact that there are over 2,000 clinical trials just for cancer immunotherapy now. We are deriving great knowledge about treatments from these trials that complement the research done on animal models.”

Novel research approaches and technologies are propelling the field forward along with new understanding that effective treatments will now require a system-wide, not just local, immune system response. Davis points to the emergence of systems immunology, a new field, in which multiple aspects of an immune response are measured simultaneously. “We are measuring dozens of immune-activating molecules and hundreds of cell types to study the intricacies of human immune response and to develop new metrics of immune health.”

Patricia Jones, PhD

In a Stanford study looking at effective anti-tumor activity, Edgar Engleman, MD, Faculty, Professor of Pathology and of Medicine, described “analyzing 40 characteristics, within millions of cells, from multiple tissues throughout an individual’s body to show that you need a systemwide immune response to attack and eradicate a tumor.”

In answering this need for more research and new medical treatments, Jones said, many of our alumni are working hard in basic science and translational research, taking their discoveries from the bench into industry and even starting their own companies. Alumni agreed describing how studying Immunology was a transformative experience for them and a great platform in which to train. Many believe: From Immunology, one can go anywhere. 

Jake Glanville, PhD2018, Co-founder and Chairman, Distributed Bio, has had a foot in both academia and industry concurrently, as he founded his firm prior to entering graduate studies. He shares Jones’ opinion saying, “Stanford has a great flow between academia and industry.” His firm is applying computational immunology, big data, and artificial intelligence to speed antibody discovery and engineering. “I feel like I have more power in industry to get my science realized. More power to execute my dream.”

Luhua Zhang, PhD, 2016, Research Investigator II, Bristol-Myers Squibb, agreed, “In this climate, science is not just happening by researchers on the bench. We are doing so much in industry, and the science is intense.”

As scientists decipher recognition, signaling and cell interaction processes embedded in human immune system cells, they have also encountered individual differences, in how immune cells are modified by a person’s genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors. It is for this reason that Immunology is becoming an essential building block for the practice of precision medicine, joining forces with genetics, computational science, and molecular chemistry.

“Genetics is part of the equation in precision medicine, but only one part, said Davis. “Then life happens.”

Formerly at Merck, Luis Zuniga, PhD, 2011, now Director, Innate Immunology, Ascendis Parma A/S, said, “The mouse model was a proof of concept and critical for our knowledge.” And Bryan Cannon, third year graduate student studying the immunological basis for Alzheimer’s, agreed. “The basic process in the murine model is the same but all the elements – the proteins, sugars, and their structures -- differ in humans.”

Bryan Cannon, Graduate Student

Essentially, Davis believes we must begin with the human immune system and find ways to “interrogate,” or probe it for clues about how this intricately layered system functions. How it defends the body by simultaneously deploying defensive mechanisms at the molecular and cellular levels. Jones commented, “We have more faculty devoted to studying human immunology than other institutions, and this has been a focus of faculty hiring in a variety of departments.”

Of the alumni in attendance, many are delving into human studies. They are studying how to amplify the body’s natural defense mechanisms, studying the links between mutations and disease and how exposure to chemicals induce immunological responses.

Jones credits Mark Davis as having another vision that has also differentiated Stanford when compared to other academic institutions and has benefitted human immunology research. “Mark believed we should not only study human immunology directly but also take a computational systems approach,” said Jones. “As such, we are the first program in the country to implement a computational systems immunology training track for our graduate students. This computational emphasis benefits all of the immunologists and their labs and is very valuable for analyzing the large data sets emerging from human immunology studies.”

Gregory Frank, PhD, 1997, from the inaugural graduate class, has worked in every stage of drug development and is now consulting and teaching strategic business development. He remarked about how drug discovery has changed over the last 30 years. “Human data is paramount today,” he said. “Traditionally, we found drug targets in animal models, but now we are finding them in large human data sets, using statistical genetics, bioinformatics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It’s using these computer science skills that enables scientists to sort through massive human data sets to find meaningful associations,” he paused. “Immunologists need to understand the language of computer science.”

“I believe there could be an immunological basis for many diseases that plague us,” said Davis. “A common basis for even the most intractable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, or the diseases of old age. Using our new knowledge in molecular chemistry, new imaging technologies and computational tools, we are unraveling connections that we did not know existed before.”

Immunology alumni reconnecting during the 30th Anniversary Luncheon

From Humble Beginnings in 1988

From humble beginnings in 1988, with just four graduate students, the PhD program now has 60 students, 10 postdocs, and 400 affiliated postdocs. There are 91 faculty members, hailing from 39 disciplines, with a Nobel Laureate and 11 National Academy of the Sciences members among its ranks. The program encompasses a major interdisciplinary institute (ITI) and two-degree program tracks:  Molecular, Cellular & Translational Immunology and Computational & Systems Immunology, the nation’s first computational systems graduate program devoted to immunology.

Today, almost 200 hundred alumni are conducting research in their own labs, practicing medicine, running clinical trials, teaching at universities at all levels, and running NIH units and federal labs. They also include scientists involved in every stage of drug development at major pharmaceutical firms nationwide, and others who are investing in and starting biotech companies to develop new drugs and treatments.

The celebration continues.