Allen Institute launches new immunology division with $125M from its late founder

Allen Institute for Immunology
Thomas Bumol, far left, executive director of the Allen Institute for Immunology, chats with other researchers in a laboratory. (Allen Institute Photo)

Billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen died two months ago, but before he passed away, he passed along a $125 million commitment to a new research frontier: the Allen Institute for Immunology.

The Allen Institute’s newest division, to be unveiled today at the institute’s Seattle headquarters, will focus on the human immune system and how it can be tweaked to fight cancer and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

“Paul Allen always challenged us to go after the really hard problems, to do work that would have a significant impact in our scientific fields,” Allan Jones, president and CEO of the Allen Institute, said in a news release. “Understanding the human immune system in detail and figuring out what goes wrong in disease is an incredibly complex but solvable problem. I’m thrilled to see us launch into this new area of complexity in biology with a real opportunity to directly impact human health.”

In its initial phase, the immunology institute will focus its energy on five diseases: two types of cancer known as multiple myeloma and melanoma, plus rheumatoid arthritis and two types of inflammatory bowel disease — specifically, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Multiple myeloma is the second most common blood cancer, after leukemia, and is said to cause 12,500 deaths annually. Melanoma is a skin cancer that’s expected to cause more than 9,300 deaths in the U.S. this year. More than 1.3 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis, which affects the joints, and as many as 1.6 million Americans have to cope with chronic inflammatory bowel disease.

Although the immune system is known to play a role in all those conditions, for good or for ill, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood. Those are the knowledge gaps that the Allen Institute for Immunology aims to fill.

The new institute’s executive director is Thomas Bumol, who worked for more than 35 years at Lilly Research Laboratories. His work at Lilly focused on drug discovery and early clinical development of treatments for maladies including arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

““By unraveling the mysteries of the dynamic immune system in healthy individuals and focusing the same cutting-edge tools on patients in various disease states, we believe we will find new ways to diagnose and ultimately treat disease,” Bumol said. “We are looking at problems that have large unmet needs.”

Over time, the institute will broaden its work to encompass more of the scores of autoimmune diseases and types of cancer, plus other diseases that involve the immune system.

“This is just the tip of a really big iceberg of opportunity,” Bumol said. “If this model works, we’ll have applications that will go way beyond these first few diseases we’re studying. We’ll see the impact grow across a large swath of human health.”

To gain a better understanding of how healthy immune systems work, and why things go wrong, the immunology institute will build upon the big-science model set by the Allen Institute’s two existing research divisions. The Allen Institute for Brain Science focuses on brain structure and the crucial role played by gene expression, while the Allen Institute for Cell Science delves into the mechanisms that govern cellular processes.

Bumol’s division will conduct detailed studies of the foundational components of the immune system — its cell types and networks — and how those components change over the course of one to three years in healthy volunteers as well as patients with immune-related diseases.

To support that strategy, the institute is partnering with five other research organizations: the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute in Seattle, as well as the University of California at San Diego, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the University of Pennsylvania.

“The new focus on immunology draws on the Allen Institute’s 15-year history of groundbreaking basic and translational scientific discovery,” said Marshall Horwitz, associate dean of UW Medicine and chair of the new institute’s scientific advisory board.

In keeping with the precedent set by Paul Allen for the institute’s other research divisions, the immunology institute will make all of its data and tools openly accessible online for anyone in the scientific community to use.

Check back for updates in this developing story.