Newswise — PHILADELPHIA—Three of the top-ten causes of death worldwide are infectious diseases, with billions of people harboring such potentially lethal pathogens as the hepatitis B virus, malaria, tuberculosis, the influenza virus, and HIV. Taking a creative approach to address this problem, Penn Medicine and colleagues at Oxford University and Massachusetts General Hospital have received an additional five-year round of funding totaling $10 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore using a promising cancer treatment to combat these dangerous viruses.

E. John Wherry, PhDthe chair of Pharmacology at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, will lead the Penn team in the collaboration to study the impact of an immunotherapy called PD-1 blockade on viral immunity in humans. This grant renewal is part of the NIH’s Cooperative Centers for Human Immunology consortium. 

The programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) is located on an immune cell’s surface and plays a key role in restraining T cell activity. While this control of immune response can prevent autoimmune diseases, it can also block the immune system’s ability to kill cancer cells. PD-1 inhibitors can thwart PD-1, ramping up the immune system’s capacity to attack tumors.

“These medications have also shown early promise against infectious diseases,” said Wherry. “But there is almost no information in humans about how targeting PD-1 affects immunity to viruses and vaccines.”

The new grant aims to address this crucial gap in knowledge to improve prevention and treatment of infectious diseases. The primary goal is to apply PD-1 blockade in hepatitis B virus infection and flu vaccination, identifying innate and adaptive immune effects controlled by PD-1 signals in response to viruses and vaccines in people.

By studying humans, the new grant will seek to address a common challenge in basic biomedicine: Much research now only takes place in mice, making the translation of insights gained from animal studies to humans limited.  “Flu and other respiratory infections alone kill up to half a million people globally each year,” said Wherry. “Vaccines remain only partially effective, especially in the most vulnerable populations. Although we have learned a great deal about human immunology in the past several decades, we still have a long way to go.”

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $405 million awarded in the 2017 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report — Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital – the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, a leading provider of highly skilled and compassionate behavioral healthcare.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2017, Penn Medicine provided $500 million to benefit our community.

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