Paul Allen

Evan Agostini/AP Photo

$125 million gift from Microsoft co-founder launches new institute to probe immune system

Immunology is the latest field that will benefit from a hefty sum donated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The newly launched Allen Institute for Immunology, planned before the philanthropist died in October from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, will attempt to better define what’s normal for the immune system and why it falters in cancer and autoimmune diseases.

The institute, which will be announced today at a press conference, will eventually hire about 70 researchers, who will work at the Seattle, Washington, location shared by Allen institutes focused on cell biology and the brain. Their new sibling starts with a nest egg of $125 million from Allen, but it could receive more money from his estate. The immunology institute will differ from the other Allen institutes because “we are going to be really dedicated to understanding disease mechanisms and translational opportunities,” says Executive Director Thomas Bumol, a former senior vice-president at Lilly Research Laboratories.

With the recent explosion in immune-based therapies such as checkpoint inhibitors for treating cancer, it might seem that scientists have the immune system figured out. But these drugs aren’t the norm, Bumol says. “The successes are great but, as everyone knows, failure is the predominant result in drug discovery.” A prime reason for these stumbles, he says, is “a lack of understanding of the complexity of the immune system.”

To refine that understanding, “we want to do a very detailed view of the immune system over time,” Bumol says. Researchers with the institute will track the immune function of three groups of people over periods of 5 years. The first group is 4-year-olds, who are starting to receive vaccinations and whose immune system is about to be assailed by all the pathogens they will pick up in school. The other two groups will be healthy adults in their 20s and 30s and older people between 55 and 65. Scientists at the institute will use recently developed techniques such as mass cytometry, which provides a much more detailed profile of cells’ identity and activities than older methods, to try to determine a baseline for the immune system.

With these groups for comparison, scientists will then try to ferret out immune differences in people with either of two cancers—multiple myeloma or melanoma—or with the autoimmune illnesses rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn disease. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, Bumol says, researchers will study people who are at risk of developing the disease, in hopes of discovering what sets it off. Institute immunologists will have access to clinical data through partnerships with several medical centers.

By including leaders from industry who understand drug development and forming partnerships with clinical researchers, the new institute improves its odds of making discoveries that spawn new treatments, says infection biologist Eric Skaar, who heads the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation in Nashville. And that $125 million won’t hurt. “It’s a large commitment [that] is proportional to the magnitude of the problem,” he says. Cellular immunologist Holden Maecker of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, agrees that the project “is set up well for success.”

The new institute’s approach isn’t revolutionary—other collaborations or researchers are using big data to delve into the human immune system, says immunologist Mitchell Kronenberg, president and chief scientific officer of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, California. “I expect them to make a contribution,” he says, “but I think it will be additive.”