Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Executive Spotlight: Mitchell Kronenberg, President and Chief Scientific Officer, La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology

Kronenberg is an internationally recognized scientist and one of the most highly cited immunologists in the world. He was appointed president of La Jolla Institute in September 2003. In addition to his executive duties, he serves as chief scientific officer and conducts an active research program. He received his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology in 1983, and stayed on to complete his postdoctoral work before joining the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine in 1986. At UCLA, he rose through the ranks to full professor. In 1997, he came to La Jolla Institute to head the division of developmental immunology, a position he held for 14 years, before stepping down recently to devote more time to his duties as president and chief scientific officer.

Over the years, Kronenberg has received many major awards, most recently a prestigious Merit Award for scientific achievement from the National Institutes of Health. He has also been a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Visiting Professor at Harvard University and recently was asked to deliver the Joseph S. Ingraham immunology lecture at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Q: Tell me a little about the institute and its most significant milestones. How did it first get started?
A: The La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology was established in 1988 by a coalition of leaders from academia and industry who envisioned a unique and dynamic partnership that would lead to breakthroughs in the understanding of the immune system and improvements in human health. We began our laboratory operations in 1989 with the arrival of two pioneering immunologists: Kimishige and Teruko Ishizaka. They were M.D./Ph.D.s from Johns Hopkins University renowned for their seminal discovery about the molecular origins of allergies. They started us down a path of scientific excellence that has included major discoveries on a number of immune-mediated diseases over the years. Among these are autoimmune diseases, like type 1 diabetes and Crohn’s disease, and cancer and heart disease, where the role of the immune system and inflammation is becoming increasingly appreciated. Of course, the immune system is highly protective, and we also have important findings related to vaccine development and infectious diseases such as H1N1 influenza.

Our significant progress is evidenced by the fact that we were recently ranked by Thomson Reuters among the top five organizations worldwide for research impact in immunology. In addition, five potential therapies, based on our institute’s discoveries, are currently in the pharmaceutical pipeline.

Q: Why was it important to dedicate an institute to exploring the body’s defense system?
A: The immune system goes to every part in your body to defend your body and we know you can’t live without your immune system. If you’re highly immunocompromised, you die rapidly from infection. And we also know that vaccination is probably the most effective public health measure we have ever found. So, immunology is very important in doing good in our bodies, and, yet, it also can do bad by causing inflammation leading to autoimmune diseases. There are about 83 known autoimmune diseases. There are probably other inflammatory conditions not classified as autoimmune, in which the immune system plays a role, including atherosclerosis. So, the immune systems does great things to keep us alive every day, and is a great target in terms of vaccinations for keeping us healthy, in other words, giving us more immunity.

However, sometimes the immune system is irrationally exuberant, if I can quote Alan Greenspan. It could begin attacking the pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes or early onset diabetes. It could be attacking the nerves and you get multiple sclerosis. It could be contributing to arthritis. I already mentioned atherosclerosis and many, many more diseases.

We think the immune system, aside from its inherent intellectual fascination, has the greatest implications for health and disease of people. If you’re going to form an institute and dedicate it to one area of biomedical research, it seems to me that immunology would be a very good one because of its wide implications for human health and disease.

Q: We are in a unique position in San Diego as one of the clusters of biomedical research, including early-stage academic research. Talk about some of your industry/academic collaborations on important science.
A: We have a very interesting, long-term partnership with a Japanese pharmaceutical corporation called Kyowa Hakko Kirin. Our partnership actually started with Kirin many years ago, a name that may sound familiar to you because they also make Kirin beer. The current organization was formed by the merger of Kyowa Hakko and Kirin Pharma in 2008, and it is a moderately large pharmaceutical company in Japan. They also have 45 people who work in the building here. Our census is about 350 for our institute. It’s like having an endowment in the sense that every lab, every year gets money to buy equipment and engage in projects of their choosing. In return, and within certain limitations, the company gets first rights to negotiate for our intellectual property and they also enjoy the ease of collaboration by co-locating with us. There are two projects that originated from this institute that are in clinical development with Kyowa Hakko Kirin and others that are in preclinical research.

Q: How else is the institute funded?
A: We’re dependent on NIH for about 75 percent of our annual revenues and every year we’ve had increases in our NIH funding. No. 2 is our contract research agreement with Kyowa Hakko Kirin, which gives us about 13 percent of our annual budget. Other sources include philanthropy contributions and also grants from other agencies such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, American Cancer Society and other private agencies that support biomedical research, as well as our licensing income.

Q: Talk about your new Center for RNAi Research, and what you hope to accomplish.
A: We received a large NIH grant in 2010, in a very competitive process, to set up a center for RNA interference (RNAi) screening. We opened the center in August. RNAi is a young and very powerful technology that we will use to try and understand what each gene in our genome does. The center will incorporate robotics and high-throughput screening methods and will have particular expertise in the use of real-life experimental models of disease.

The grant pays for four projects that relate to the immune system, but we don’t want the facility to be confined only to immune system work. We intend to explore genetic questions that will be important in disease processes of all kinds. In addition to our own research, we want it to be open to the academic groups on the Torrey Pines Mesa and to the universities. There will be a fee-for-service arrangement. We hope to have all kinds of projects. We even hope to expand the size and scope of this facility.

Q: When you aren’t spending your time at work, what are you doing?
A: I like to spend time with my family. My wife is also a busy scientist here and we have three sons, two of whom are grown and attending universities and one who lives with us still. I lift weights one day a week and run a couple days a week and I read compulsively. I was recently reading a book called “The Women” by T.C. Boyle and it’s actually a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. I have been reading another book that’s called “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann and it won the Man Booker Prize. It’s a wonderful novel about intersecting lives, Irish immigrants, people in the ghetto in New York City. It is a fantastic story.

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