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Letter from the President – Spring 2021

On immunology and gratitude

These days, going into work at La Jolla Institute for Immunology means submitting a saliva sample in a tube, and after RNA analysis, the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19 disease) screening results are posted online within a few hours. Like many changes since 2020, this strange ritual has come to feel routine.

It’s now been more than a year since the first pandemic shut-downs in the United States. As we reflect on this milestone, I’m proud of how much LJI scientists and staff have accomplished in learning about anti-viral immunity in patients exposed to the coronavirus.

Our saliva screening program for viral genes in LJI employees is an additional breakthrough. That system was developed at LJI by the staff of the Next Generation Sequencing Core, led by Suzanne Alarcon. Her team worked day and night for months to get the screening up and running. In this issue of Immune Matters, you’ll learn how this effort led to Alarcon and her colleagues winning the ultra-competitive XPRIZE.

I’m also in awe of what scientists like Dr. Alba Grifoni, featured in this issue’s “Up and Coming” article, have accomplished in communicating the importance of immunology to the public. Researchers here have spoken to global conferences, newspaper reporters, local clubs, Twitter followers—and many other groups—to explain the importance of our COVID-19 studies and vaccines.

The next step is to help more people to understand that immunology is the way to combat other health threats, from cancers to autoimmune diseases. Sharing the latest insights from our labs will be especially important as LJI researchers take on studies in new areas.

We don’t yet know why men and women face different health issues. Men are more vulnerable to some infectious diseases, including COVID-19, while women are more prone to autoimmune diseases—and these trends can’t just be chalked up to hormonal differences. In our cover story, you’ll learn about the fascinating new world of research on the influence of sex on the immune response.

This issue’s Q&A with Dr. Bjoern Peters explores the challenges of launching a global project, the Immune Epitope Database (IEDB), which requires computational and experimental scientists around the world to work together to report their findings in a way that can inform vaccine development and immune therapies.

As we’ve shared our science in the last year of social isolation, we’ve appreciated the chance to hear back from supporters. In this issue, long-time LJI advocates and donors, the dynamic couple of François Ferré (a member of the LJI Board) and Magda Marquet, explain why LJI stands out to them. As Magda says, “Everyone at LJI is very approachable and very good at explaining what they do—and immunology is not the easiest thing to explain.” As researchers here take on new challenges, we’ll continue to speak up and share our science.

On September 1st, after 18 years at the helm, I will step down from the role of LJI President. We have planned for this transition for some time, working with the Board of Directors, administrative leaders, and faculty members. I am very pleased to announce that after an extensive search, LJI Professor Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire has been chosen to be the President and CEO. Erica is an award-winning scientist with expertise on immune recognition of viruses, the ability to galvanize groups of scientists around the world to work together, and a most engaging and effective communication style. You will learn more soon, as Erica will be featured in the next issue of Immune Matters. I will continue research in my laboratory and will participate in helping Erica in leadership as Chief Scientific Officer. This is an exciting era with the spotlight shining on immunology and LJI. With much gratitude, I thank you for being part of our journey.

Sincerely,

Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D.
President & Chief Scientific Officer
La Jolla Institute for Immunology