New monitoring center to provide 'snapshots' of human immune system

- By Mitzi Baker

For years, Garry Fathman, MD, and Mark Davis, PhD, dreamed of a place where they could take a sample of blood from a patient and subject it to a battery of tests that would provide a snapshot of that person's immune system. Their dream has come true with the opening of the Human Immune Monitoring Center at the School of Medicine on Sept. 26.

David Hirschberg, PhD, the director of the center, has set out to realize the vision of every immunologist who ever wondered what was going on with the immune system of a patient.

The center brings together the latest technology for exploring the immune system in one room, in the basement of the Center for Clinical Sciences Research building. Its unassuming appearance belies the enormous undertaking it represents: to provide 'one-stop-shopping' for a comprehensive assortment of the most advanced immunological tests available.

David Hirschberg

David Hirschberg

'Symbolically, I love being in the basement,' said Hirschberg. 'This is all about getting in on the ground floor.'

The unique facility has a straightforward goal: to run as many tests as possible on one sample - such as a vial of blood - to extract the most information from the least amount of material. Results are integrated to capture an immunological 'snapshot' of a person.

That integration is what sets the Stanford center apart from other clinical immunology labs, said Hirschberg. A hospital lab typically would run only one or two specialized tests. Research labs might run any of a number of specific tests to measure immune function. But until now, nobody has put it all together to paint a detailed picture of overall immune system functioning.

'I was brought in to shake things up, to get people to work together, including engineers, industry and clinicians,' said Hirschberg, who came from a Silicon Valley company, Agilent Technologies, after his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford.

Even before Hirschberg's group moved to their new basement digs, they had been functional for the past six months. A number of collaborative studies have already begun - with researchers from Stanford, as well as from other institutions - including investigations of immune system involvement in atrial fibrillation, chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis C, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis and prostate cancer.

Ian Lipkin, MD, a professor of neurology and pathology from Columbia University, has been using the services to study what goes wrong with the immune system in autism. 'Analyses of serum from children with autism has already yielded important insights that have implications for early diagnosis and management,' said Lipkin. 'The Human Immune Monitoring Center is an extraordinary resource for Stanford and the larger scientific community.'

Funded by a $1.5 million gift from the HEDCO Foundation for the equipment, in addition to grants from the Russell Foundation, the Sidney Frank Foundation and the Becton Dickinson Corp., the small room may hold the answer to many of the mysteries of the immune system.

The lab provides a dozen different tests, including genetic analysis and cell sorting that can pick out extremely rare immune cells from a blood sample. The center is also establishing its own database so that so that researchers can survey across the many different diseases with immunological components to look for similarities and differences.

'This center is the first of its kind,' said Fathman, who is a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford. He emphasized that the center will document the range of what is 'normal' immune function. 'What we want to create is the roadmap for normalcy,' he said, which can be used as a reference for studying immune dysfunction.

'If I go to my doctor and ask, 'How is my immune system doing today,' I would probably get a blank stare,' said Davis, professor of microbiology and immunology and director of the Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection.'

Much like doctors routinely test for blood lipids now, the founders of the immune monitoring center want to create parallel standards for the immune system. 'We want to be predictive,' Davis said.

'This will be of immediate benefit to the study of some diseases, but getting to the 'big picture' will take some time and a lot of hard and intensely collaborative work,' said Davis. 'But in five to 10 years this could really change the face of medicine.'

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2023 ISSUE 3

Exploring ways AI is applied to health care