The immune system is involved in almost every disease, at one level or another. Special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs that defend people against germs and other perceived invaders are its sum. Doctors and researchers conduct an array of tests to characterize a person’s immune health, including looking at the amount of different types of T cells, which can help detect major problems, such as HIV. Tools to manipulate the immune system are a mainstay of modern medicine: immunizations to protect against infectious diseases, immunosuppression medications for organ transplant recipients, and treating cancers with immunotherapies. Collectively, assessing a snapshot of a person’s unique state of immune health is called immune profiling, which can entail identifying immune-cell-associated genes and proteins, as well as the cell types themselves.
“The immune system is a sensory organ as much as it is an organ that’s protecting us,” notes John Wherry, chair of pharmacology, in a video marking the opening of the new Allen Institute for Immunology, a research organization for advancing the fundamental understanding of human immunology. “It’s seeing everything that’s going on in your body all the time. An immune cell that’s circulating in your blood in your left hand may end up in your heart in an hour, and the next day it may be in your brain surveying for something that’s wrong.”
At Penn, a cadre of immunologists, oncologists, infectious disease specialists, and others are thinking about the immune system in a new and exciting way based on its integral and ubiquitous ties to human health. In addition to the great strides made in cancer immunotherapy in the last decade, they are beginning to amass intriguing data on a key role for the immune system in therapies in gastroenterology, neurology, vaccines in vulnerable populations, cardiovascular disease, as well as obesity and metabolic disease.
“We’re looking at the immune system as a new opportunity to develop drugs. If we can understand it, we can turn it in the patient’s favor to treat these many, many diseases,” says Wherry, who is also director of the Penn Institute of Immunology.
Read more at Penn Medicine News.