The Geography of Immunology

San Diego’s Emergence as an Immunology Hub

by John Emrich and Charles Richter
October 2019

The history exhibit at IMMUNOLOGY 2019™ showcased the rich history of immunology in San Diego. Although the city is a relatively new center for the field, it has long roots in biological research and has rapidly become an important hub of innovation. In the March/April 2019 issue of the AAI Newsletter, we looked at the pioneers of immunology on Torrey Pines Mesa. Here, drawing on the IMMUNOLOGY 2019™ history exhibit, we explore additional aspects of immunological history in San Diego.

The Growth of Immunology in San Diego

The first members of The American Association of Immunologists (AAI) in San Diego, beginning in 1961, were scientists at the Scripps Research Institute. For most of the 1960s, the only two institutions in San Diego with AAI members were Scripps and the Salk Institute. In the middle of the decade, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), began an intense recruitment campaign to attract top scientists, including immunologists, to the institution. By the late 1970s, immunology was flourishing at all of the “Big Three” institutions on Torrey Pines Mesa, with the local AAI membership growing from zero to nearly 100 in less than two decades.

The local biotechnology industry was born in 1978 with the founding of Hybritech and quickly became represented in the AAI membership. Hybritech, founded by UCSD professor Ivor Royston (AAI ’81), was a pioneer in the use of monoclonal antibodies, and its alums have gone on to found dozens of other firms in San Diego, such as Dura, IDEC, and Viagene. By 1990, AAI was represented at over a dozen companies in San Diego. That number doubled by the turn of the century. AAI members have founded or conducted research at more than 100 biotech companies in the area, which today include BioLegend, BD PharMingen, Thermo Fisher Scientific, AnaptysBio, Arena Pharmaceuticals, and NantKwest.

The last two decades have been marked by diversification in research opportunities, as new biotech firms and research institutes were founded, and joint centers and partnerships between institutions on the mesa were established. AAI members are now well represented at a variety of research environments in San Diego, with the largest numbers at UCSD, Scripps Research, and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

Distinguished Members

Once Frank Dixon (AAI ’50, president 1971–72) and the rest of the “Pittsburgh Five” arrived at Scripps Research in 1961, and Jonas Salk (AAI ’47) established the Salk Institute, San Diego began to attract many distinguished AAI members.

The first AAI president to serve his term in San Diego was Karl Habel (AAI ’52, president 1969–70) who, following a long tenure at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was recruited in 1967 to continue his research and teaching at Scripps and UCSD. Richard Dutton (AAI ’63, president 1995–96) came to La Jolla from London in 1962, initially to perform research at Scripps before moving his laboratory to UCSD in 1968, where he spent almost three decades conducting research using in vitro studies of the antibody response and T cell response. Jonathan Sprent (AAI ’80, president 1998–99) arrived at Scripps in 1984, where for nearly two decades he conducted research elucidating the role of the T cell. The most recent president from San Diego is Linda Sherman (AAI ’81, president 2014–15) who, since joining Scripps in 1978, has made discoveries connected to the interface between autoimmunity and tumor immunity.

In addition to these past presidents, San Diego has also been home to Joseph Feldman (AAI ’63, EIC 1971–87), the second longest serving editor-in-chief of The Journal of Immunology; Mitchell Kronenberg (AAI ’84, secretary-treasurer 2009–15), who since 2003 has been president and chief science officer at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI); recipients of the AAI Excellence in Mentoring Award Norman R. Klinman (AAI ’67) in 2006 and Michael B.A. Oldstone (AAI ’70) in 2011; and members of the inaugural class of the Distinguished Fellows of AAI Wendy L. Havran (AAI ’85), Stephen M. Hedrick (AAI ’81), Kronenberg, and Sherman.


The expansion of immunology in San Diego included the establishment of independent non-profit research institutes beginning in the 1970s. Three of the earliest that brought many AAI members to San Diego were the La Jolla Cancer Research Institute (now the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute), the Medical Biology Institute, and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (now the La Jolla Institute for Immunology).

Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute was established when William and Lillian Fishman left Tufts University, set off for San Diego in 1976 with a $180,000 planning grant from the National Cancer Institute, and founded the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation. The early pioneers on Torrey Pines Mesa made the Fishmans feel at home: the Scripps Research Institute provided laboratory space for the fledgling foundation, and Jonas Salk visited to offer an electron microscope. In 1979, Erkki Ruoslahti (AAI ’77) joined the foundation and, under his leadership, it grew rapidly and produced many innovations in cancer immunology, particularly in the area of extracellular matrix proteins. John C. Reed (AAI ’97) made important discoveries of the proteins involved in apoptosis and their mechanism inanti-cancer drugs. The advances made by researchers at the foundation attracted the attention of generous donors, prompting several name changes over the years; it has been known as Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute since 2015.

The Medical Biology Institute (MBI) was founded in 1982 on the Torrey Pines Mesa by David Katz (AAI ’72), a former Scripps researcher, and within a few years had provided the field with an invaluable tool. In 1988, a research group at MBI led by Donald Mosier (AAI ’69) was one of the first to create a functioning immune system in a mouse. Using the severe combined immunodeficiency mouse that Melvin Bosma (AAI ’96) had developed in 1983, Mosier’s team injected human peripheral blood leukocytes into the peritoneal tissue of the mouse’s chest, creating mice that could produce human antibodies.

The La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) has quickly grown to become one of the top three employers of AAI members in San Diego. Founded in 1988 as the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology by a group of scientists from academia and industry, LJI began laboratory operations the next year with the arrival of Kimishige Ishizaka (AAI ’58, president 1984–85) and Teruko Ishizaka (AAI ’65) from Johns Hopkins University. Kimishige Ishizaka was appointed president and scientific director of the institute in 1991. In subsequent years, LJI has been led by AAI members Howard Grey (AAI ’65) and Kronenberg. From the very beginning, LJI has maintained the world’s longest running industry-academic partnership in its collaboration with the Japanese pharmaceutical firm Kyowa Kirin Pharmaceutical Research. The firm has first negotiating rights to translate basic research discoveries stemming from those Institute projects that it funds. In La Jolla, the Institute and company share adjoining laboratory facilities on the edge of the UCSD campus.

The growth and diversification of immunology research in San Diego has probably far exceeded the dreams of Frank Dixon and the Pittsburgh Five when they arrived to set up the first immunology laboratories in San Diego. Nearly six decades later, the city is a thriving hub of immunology investigation and discovery at its many research centers and biotech companies.


See related published articles:



  • Mosier, D. E., R. J. Gulizia, S. M. Baird, and D. B. Wilson. “Transfer of a Functional Human Immune System to Mice with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency.” Nature 335, no. 6187 (1988): 256–9.
  • Philips, Kathryn. “Closing in on Cancer” Los Angeles Times Magazine. February 19, 1989, 16.
  • “Building a Foundation: Q&A with Lillian Fishman,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 27, 2013.
  • “La Jolla Institute Renews Longtime Collaboration with Kyowa Kirin Pharmaceutical Research, Inc.” La Jolla Institute, December 18, 2018.

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