Scientists at Yale University will test a new theory of inflammation and chronic disease, thanks to a $10 million grant from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the charitable organization headed by American industrialist and philanthropist Len Blavatnik. The grant supports the work of immunobiologists Ruslan Medzhitov and Richard Flavell, who have posed a unifying theory to describe how inflammation can impact the body’s homeostatic control mechanisms to trigger the onset of disease.
Yale President-elect Peter Salovey expressed the University’s gratitude to the Blavatnik Family Foundation for what he called “an extremely generous and far-sighted” contribution. “The research now underway in the Medzhitov and Flavell laboratories has the potential to transform our understanding of human biology and our approaches to the most intractable diseases. This grant will accelerate their work at Yale’s Department of Immunobiology, which is world-renowned for leading major advances in innate and adaptive immunity,” Salovey said.
“The Blavatnik Family Foundation is committed to the advancement of breakthrough scientific discoveries,” said Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries. “This new theory represents a paradigm shift in the science of chronic diseases and may lead to new prevention strategies, treatments, and even cures for many disorders.”
Much of Yale’s prominence in the area is already attributed to Medzhitov and Flavell, who have led pioneering studies on the control of inflammation by the innate immune system. Flavell chairs Yale’s Department of Immunobiology, which he helped to found 24 years ago. He is the Sterling Professor of Immunobiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Ruslan Medzhitov, the David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology, is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He is widely recognized, along with the late Charles A. Janeway Jr., for his part in elucidating the role of the innate immune system, for which he received a Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in 2007. In February, Medzhitov and Flavell were jointly awarded the 2013 Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science. Now, they are building on their discoveries in immunology to seek the molecular origins of disease.
The healthy human body regulates its own tissues and organs to maintain key physiological variables in a beneficial balance, a “steady state” that scientists call homeostasis. The body even gets some outside help from microbes, or commensal microorganisms, that reside in locations such as the digestive tract and play a part in maintaining core body temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep patterns, and a host of metabolic processes needed for fitness and survival.
When infection or tissue damage occurs, the body’s innate immune system activates inflammatory mechanisms that help to combat these dangers and restore a proper balance, at least in the short term. Medzhitov and Flavell postulate that these same inflammatory mechanisms can have a damaging effect on homeostatic controls—an effect they see as a root cause of many serious health disorders. They plan a detailed study to define the molecular links between inflammation, commensal microorganisms, and chronic disease.
Dr. Robert Alpern, dean of Yale School of Medicine, said: “The Blavatnik Family Foundation's generous grant will support game-changing research in the field of immunobiology. This work offers a whole new way to look at the causes of many chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. A few years from now, I am optimistic that, as a result of this important research, we will be in a position to develop new therapeutics that can broadly impact human health and quality of life.”
Blavatnik is deeply committed to supporting innovation in biomedical research and higher education. The Blavatnik Family Foundation is an active supporter of leading educational, scientific, cultural, and charitable institutions throughout the world. In 2007, the Blavatnik Family Foundation established the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, awarded through the New York Academy of Sciences, to recognize innovative and impactful accomplishments in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. The Blavatnik Family Foundation has also supported the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT and provided seed funding at Harvard for highly promising, early-stage research in the life sciences. In 2010, The Blavatnik Family Foundation made a gift to establish the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, to train outstanding graduates from across the world in the skills and responsibilities of government.