Researchers at the Emory Vaccine Center are making discoveries leading to new vaccines and cures.
With the longtime support of the Ambrose Monell Foundation, the Emory Vaccine Center (EVC) is conducting fundamental research into life-saving cures for the world’s most threatening diseases plaguing millions of individuals around the globe.
Dr. Rafi Ahmed, an internationally renowned scientist in viral pathogenesis and immunity and one of the world’s leading experts on T-cell memory, leads the Center. Dr. Ahmed has been instrumental in shaping EVC’s research agenda with a comprehensive, “soup-to-nuts” approach of basic, clinical and translational science.
These are exciting times in biomedical research and the EVC is well poised to address many important questions. At the core of the EVC mission is its major commitment to better define human immunology since this underpins all our discoveries, ambitions, and goals. This increased knowledge of the human immune system is also valuable to wide ranging research in cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, chronic neurologic and psychiatric diseases, and transplantation.
Although human T cells are some of the most potent weapons of our immune system, they are also sensitive creatures. Viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C can sustain infections partly because they lure T cells into pursuit, then push them into exhaustion. A similar pattern has been found with some cancers, such as melanoma, prostate and certain lung cancers, in which T cells infiltrate tumors but don’t attack the tumor cells. Rafi Ahmed and his colleagues were the first to show that during chronic viral infections, T cells are present but don’t attack. His lab later found that a molecule called PD-1 was responsible for keeping T-cells in their inactive, or exhausted state. Ahmed proposed that removing constraints imposed by PD-1 could revive the immune system in patients.
With support from the Monell Foundation, these groundbreaking discoveries in basic immunology originally focusing on infectious diseases have created approaches that have reinvigorated the cancer field and are opening exciting new doors for treatment. A decade ago, there were few effective treatment options for patients with advanced melanoma or lung cancer. That’s changing, thanks to new immunotherapy drugs which can unleash a patient’s own immune system. Drugs blocking the PD-1 pathway – known as checkpoint inhibitors – are now FDA-approved for melanoma, lung cancer and several other types of cancer. These drugs are often described as “releasing the brakes” on dysfunctional T cells, allowing a patient’s own immune system to fight cancerous tumors with far fewer damaging side effects of chemotherapy. With Dr. Ahmed’s findings, researchers around the globe are racing to find new treatments for many more cancers providing hope for millions.
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