Seattle’s Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) has landed $17.1 million in funding to assess why respiratory infections hit some people particularly hard, to explore new ways of treating type 1 diabetes, and other efforts.
The institution announced the funding, from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, on Thursday.
The study of respiratory infections will be powered with a $11.4 million grant for five years. Researchers will assess why children with asthma, allergies or obesity are particularly vulnerable to severe respiratory infections. They will also ask why adults with chronic inflammatory or autoimmune diseases are at increased risk of severe effects from such infections.
BRI investigators Carmen Mikacenic and Matt Altman will lead the multi-institution study, which will profile how patients respond to infection at the molecular and cellular level. Questions include which immune cells are activated, and how proteins, genes and other cellular molecules respond to infection.
Ultimately, researchers may be able to correlate such information with clinical outcomes and identify potential therapies. They will share their data with the Human Immunology Project Consortium, a network of researchers characterizing the immune system.
“This research will help contribute to a baseline understanding of how the immune system responds to infection in these understudied populations,” said Mikacenic in a press release.
A second, $3.9 million grant, will use human cells and mouse models to investigate new ways to treat type 1 diabetes, which results from autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Researchers will engineer protective “regulatory T cells” to home to the insulin-producing cells to prevent their destruction and promote their health. Researchers will also engineer T cells that release therapeutic cargo directly into the pancreatic cells.
The four-year diabetes project will be led by BRI researchers Eddie James and Jane Buckner, who is the institution’s president, as well as Seattle Children’s Research Institute researcher David Rawlings. Rawlings is a co-founder of Seattle- and Boston-based biotech company Gentibio, which is developing regulatory T cell therapies for type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
“We aim to uncover ways to promote healthy islet function and protection,” said Buckner in the press release, referring to groups of insulin producing cells.
Four other BRI projects received about $475,000 each from the NIH, including studies on multiple sclerosis, autoimmunity, Crohn’s disease, and lung fibrosis in COVID-19. BRI is known for its focus on diseases of the immune system.