There are currently over 39 million Americans 65+ years of age, and over 6 million that are 85+ years old. In the next 30-40 years the number of American that are 100+ years old will balloon almost 10 fold to over 600,000. This aging of our population comes with multiple health-related challenges. Along with age comes a decline in the functions of the immune system. The IMB Department’s Nikolich-Zugich laboratory has made great strides in identifying the causes and consequences of these age-related immune weaknesses; with an eye towards identifying strategies to repair and modulate the immune system to compensate for those deficits.
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Tomorrow’s immune-based therapies for fighting cancer, reversing the rise in autoimmune-related diseases, or combatting infectious diseases will be based upon today’s discoveries of how the immune system functions. Basic research has set the stage for a revolution in the development of treatments that induce the immune system to kill cancer, and new discoveries are driving the improvement of such techniques. Our ever-increasing understanding of how the immune system is regulated is also providing the insights necessary to develop new therapies aimed at stopping allergies, asthma, or autoimmune diseases such as diabetes. Furthermore, as we gain a more complete understanding of how the immune system functions we are becoming better prepared to rapidly develop vaccines to protect against emerging infectious diseases. This is particularly critical for the very young and the elderly who are most vulnerable to infections. Indeed, in recent decades immunologists have made significant advances in our basic understanding of the immune system that are now being leveraged for the development of new immune-based therapies. Still, we have much more to learn – and the more we learn, the more we have to gain.
In the Kuhns Lab we are working to understand how molecular machines drive immunity, and how age impacts their function. Our thinking is that if we can deconstruct and understand how they work, piece by piece, then we can devise strategies to either enhance their performance or stop their function depending upon which outcome would be therapeutically advantageous. In addition, another long-term goal is to build better molecular machines to combat disease via gene therapy. We are particularly interested in modifying the function of CD4+ T cells since they direct CD8+ T cells to kill infected or cancerous cells, instruct B cells to make antibodies against bacteria and viruses, and play a central role in regulating immune responses to prevent autoimmunity. The more we understand about the molecular machines that drive their function, the closer we will come to achieving our goals. Please help join us on this journey by supporting our work!