AAI President's Message


Arlene H Sharpe, M.D., Ph.D. (AAI President, 2016-2017)

Interim Co-Chair and George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology
Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology
Harvard Medical School

Immunology is having a greater and greater impact on our lives. Basic science discoveries in immunology are translating to new therapies. One example is how effective cancer immunotherapies are emerging from the understanding of immunoregulatory pathways exploited by tumors to evade immune eradication. In addition, it has become clear that immune responses are key to the development of human ailments not traditionally viewed as immunologic in nature, including cardiovascular, metabolic, and Alzheimer’s diseases. Immunology is at the forefront of medicine in understanding and treating diseases. At this extraordinary time in the field of immunology, it is my great honor and privilege to serve as the president of AAI.

I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be an immunologist – we have incredible new tools to explore the immune response and opportunities to understand fascinating areas in immunology. These are leading to discoveries holding the potential for far-reaching impact on human health. We are only beginning to appreciate how the microbiota can shape immune responses and the therapeutic potential of this knowledge. Chronic inflammatory diseases are on the rise. Inflammatory bowel disease has increased six fold in the past 30 years and allergies have doubled in the past 15 years. Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis are now being seen in teenagers. We urgently need to know the reasons for these increases. Uncovering the clever strategies that microbes and tumors use to outwit the immune system has revealed new immunoregulatory mechanisms. Such insights provide the capacity to respond to new infectious threats and develop effective cancer immunotherapies. In addition, genomic, proteomic, and metabolic technologies provide tools for defining the regulatory circuitry of the immune system, and these molecular maps can identify therapeutic targets for drug development. The pharmaceutical industry is now eager to help develop our immunologic discoveries into therapeutic reality.

But despite this incredible scientific promise, research funding remains insufficient: we have many more good ideas – and talented investigators – than the funding to support them. Although there was a much needed $2 billion increase in the 2016 NIH budget (and, at press time, the possibility of a similar increase in FY 2017), much of this funding has been designated for research on specific diseases and special projects.

We are so fortunate to have the AAI as our advocate and partner in these challenging times. 

AAI is our voice on Capitol Hill. The AAI Committee on Public Affairs, together with AAI Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Lauren Gross and her dedicated staff, tirelessly advocate on our behalf to explain the importance of basic science research in immunology and the need for sustained funding to congressional legislators and their staffs. I think that we need to do more to communicate the importance of fundamental discovery research to the lay public, our legislators, and the administrative leaders in our academic institutions. There is now great emphasis on translational research, but we need to explain that it is basic discovery science that identifies the pathways and targets for clinical translation. We are the start of the pipeline. The recent advances in cancer immunotherapy provide a prime example of how investment in basic science research can lead to new therapies. Fundamental studies on T cell activation and tolerance led to the discovery and characterization of the CTLA-4 and PD-1 pathways that are now the foundational building blocks for cancer immunotherapy.

If you are planning to be in Washington, D.C., AAI can help you visit your congressional representatives. Lauren will organize your visit, accompany you, and advise you on ways to effectively advocate for research. I urge you to take advantage of this special opportunity.

I am incredibly proud of how AAI has responded to the urgent need for more funding by developing innovative programs that provide travel grants, fellowships and career awards to AAI members and other deserving members of our research community. Over the past five years, AAI has increased award funding from ~$500,000 in 2011 to more than $2.1 million in 2015. These awards have supported more than 1,000 scientists! This impressive response illustrates the perceptive leadership of AAI by our Executive Director, Michele Hogan, her dedicated associates, and my predecessors on AAI Council. These programs support education and career development at every career stage, including support for postdoctoral trainee salaries, travel to learn techniques, and travel to the AAI annual meeting.

AAI is our partner in training and mentoring the next generation of immunologists, who are the future of our field. I take great pride in the wide range of AAI educational and mentoring activities. AAI offers Introductory and Advanced Immunology Courses for trainees and scientists who want to expand their knowledge of immunology. At each annual meeting, AAI committees hold career-development sessions including networking and career roundtables, a careers in biotech panel, and practical job search sessions on honing CV development and interviewing skills. In addition, the AAI Education Committee presents career-development sessions on writing NIH grant applications, while the Publications Committee offers sessions on scientific publishing, with guidance on responding to reviewers and adhering to ethical standards. 

Mentoring is important not only for our trainees but for our junior faculty. And AAI has created resources for new principal investigators (PIs), including the Grant Review for Immunologists Program (GRIP), which matches new investigators with established PIs for guidance in preparing grant proposals as they begin their independent research careers in immunology, and the Career Advisory Board (CAB), matching new PIs with more senior PIs for advice on specific career issues. AAI also provides opportunities for high school teachers and undergraduate science faculty to enhance their abilities to convey the excitement of immunology to their students.

AAI will continue to respond to the interests and needs of its membership in developing activities which will advance their careers.

During my five years on the AAI Council, AAI has celebrated many milestones. In 2013, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of AAI. This year, we are celebrating the 100th year of our AAI journal, The Journal of Immunology, which continues to be the most highly cited journal in the field, covering the entire breadth of immunology research. In addition, this year we are celebrating 20 years of leadership by our amazing Executive Director, Michele Hogan. AAI has flourished under her leadership. Michele’s dedication, creativity, and hard work are truly inspirational.

As I begin my year as the 100th president of AAI, I am inspired by the tremendous potential for discoveries in immunology to improve human health. My priorities will be to further highlight the importance of basic science research in immunology, enhance educational opportunities, and promote the training and mentoring of the next generation of scientists.

AAI is a remarkable organization. It continues to expand its efforts to create new opportunities that advance the science of immunology and promote the scientists who make these life-changing discoveries. I urge you to join me in supporting the work of AAI and to encourage your colleagues and trainees to become members. For their careers, for immunology as a whole, it’s one of the best steps they can take. Know that I welcome your ideas, comments, and participation. I look forward to working with you during the coming year.

(Posted July 2016)

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