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La Jolla Immunology Institute Agrees to Formal Ties with UCSD

Xconomy San Diego — 

In what may be a sign of the times, an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute in San Diego that is focused on immune diseases and disorders has officially established ties with the UC San Diego Health System.

The agreement signed by the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology and the UC San Diego Health System formalizes an informal relationship that began when the institute was founded 27 years ago. The institute’s first board included prominent leaders from UC San Diego and The Scripps Research Institute, and informal agreements with the UCSD Medical Center allowed joint research activities, consultation, and training in allergy and immunology.

But as federal research funding has come under pressure in recent years, the institute has sought to bolster its funding by seeking other partnerships, according to Mitchell Kronenberg, who has served as the institute’s president and chief scientific officer since 2003. The institute, which has 272 scientists and a total headcount of 375, usually gets about $51 million in annual funding, mostly through federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and from the Japanese pharmaceutical company Kyowa Hakko Kirin.

As part of the new agreement, UCSD will provide $36 million over the next 12 years, enabling the La Jolla institute to recruit and retain leading scientists. That will provide an extra $3 million a year for the institute, “so that’s really helpful,” Kronenberg said. He anticipates the institute will get about $53 million in funding in the coming fiscal year.

All of the institute’s scientists will become adjunct professors at UC San Diego, dramatically expanding the university’s focus on the immune system. That includes the development of therapeutic vaccines to inhibit the inflammatory response in coronary heart disease, and new approaches to treating cancers by engineering a patients’ own immune cells to recognize and attack their tumors. The institute’s Center for Infectious Disease also has been working to identify antibodies that could be used to defend people against bioterrorism..

Mitchell Kronenberg

Mitchell Kronenberg

“We had interest from several academic centers,” Kronenberg said of the new partnership. “We had extensive discussions with two other entities besides UC San Diego.”

One of those other entities was the University of Southern California, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. With $4.5 billion in private donations raised to heighten USC’s academic profile, the school has been aggressively expanding its capabilities in life sciences research and development, and spending freely to recruit prominent scientists in biomedical research.

Kronenberg declined to confirm the Union-Tribune report in an interview with me, explaining that he was bound to maintain the confidentiality of his discussions with other centers.

Nevertheless, many UC San Diego leaders have been angry and defensive since a fight erupted last month between USC and UCSD over a program that coordinates research in Alzheimer’s disease (including many clinical trials) among scores of sites throughout the United States and Canada. UCSD founded the program with the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in 1991 as a kind of joint venture to facilitate the discovery, development, and testing of new drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

“All of the institutions in San Diego collaborate; there’s a very collegial atmosphere,” David Brenner, dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, told Union-Tribune reporter Gary Robbins. “USC doesn’t want that. It wants to buy, rather than build, academic programs.”

In 2014, USC attempted to join forces with The Scripps Research Institute—reportedly offering $15 million a year for 40 years for a partnership or wholesale acquisition of the biomedical research center. The proposal triggered a revolt among Scripps’ scientists, who stridently opposed the idea.

The universities’ feud over the Alzheimer’s program led UC San Diego to sue USC, former UCSD scientist Paul Aisen, and others—alleging that they conspired to “misappropriate” the Alzheimer’s study while USC was recruiting Aisen to lead a new San Diego-based Alzheimer’s research institute for USC.

After hearing arguments in the dispute at a hearing Friday, San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes granted UCSD’s request for a preliminary injunction against USC, Aisen, and other defendants in the dispute. The order represents the first step in restoring ownership of the Alzheimer’s program to UC San Diego, as well as control over a computer network and database that holds 24 years’ worth of Alzheimer’s research data. But arguments in the case have continued, and a final resolution of the dispute remains unclear.

Meanwhile, Kronenberg said the La Jolla immunology institute determined that UC San Diego is “our natural partner” because of proximity (the institute is a few hundred feet east of UCSD’s Moores Cancer Center) and the institute’s longstanding ties with UCSD. “We don’t have any debt, and we weren’t in a rescue situation,” he said.

Research at the institute includes work on autoimmune diseases like Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, developing immunotherapies to trigger an immune response to cancer, creating new vaccines, dampening harmful immune reactions to allergies and asthma, and finding new ways to battle infectious diseases.

Under the institute’s new agreement with UC San Diego, the CEO of UC San Diego’s Health System will join the institute’s board as an ex officio member, and the dean of UCSD’s medical school will join the institute’s scientific advisory board. As the institute’s president, Kronenberg also will serve as an unpaid adviser to UCSD’s vice president of health sciences.