Ruslan Medzhitov leads major research initiative on food allergies

Ruslan M. Medzhitov, the David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, will lead a major research initiative to advance the basic science underlying food allergies in collaboration with partners at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and other institutions. The Food Allergy Science Initiative (FASI) will bring together experts in immunology, gastroenterology, molecular biology, and other disciplines to seek answers to fundamental questions about the nature of food allergies and how to prevent and treat them.

Ruslan M. Medzhitov
Ruslan M. Medzhitov

An estimated 8% percent of children in the United States have food allergies, and these potentially life-threatening conditions are on the rise. Yet, little is known about the root causes of food allergies. The ambitious initiative will address such questions as how cells sense or detect allergens, what genes are involved, and what factors might explain the recent increase in food allergies.

For Medzhitov, a renowned immunobiologist, the initiative is an exciting opportunity to delve deeply into a topic that he is already investigating in his lab at Yale. “There is a knowledge gap about allergies in general,” he said. “We need to understand the basic biology behind allergies.” By learning why and how certain people react to allergens in food, scientists and clinicians aim to develop new approaches to testing for allergies and treating them, he said.

The initiative, which is supported by $10 million in seed funding, will initially focus on identifying the cellular and molecular components involved in allergic reactions, Medzhitov said. That work will allow researchers to characterize immune and intestinal cells that sense allergens, setting off the allergic response. Future avenues of investigation will explore clinical aspects and involve patients.

The brain trust behind the effort that Medzhitov will lead includes researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and the Broad Institute. The number of participating researchers will likely grow as needed, he said. 

Medzhitov — who is also an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute — has received many honors for his pioneering work, including the inaugural Else Kröner-Fresenius-Foundation prize in immunobiology, the Lurie Prize in the Biomedical Sciences from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, and the 2013 Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science, among others.

Further details about FASI are available at broadinstitute.org/foodallergy.

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Ziba Kashef: ziba.kashef@yale.edu, 203-436-9317