Ley, Hedrick to lead new MCG Center for Immunology

Renowned immunologists and vascular biologists Drs. Klaus Ley and Catherine “Lynn” Hedrick from California’s La Jolla Institute for Immunology have been named co-directors of the new Center for Immunology at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, an initiative which will dramatically expand research to better harness the power of the immune system to prevent and treat disease.

“Our immune system is essential to our health and wellbeing but also is a factor in most disease states, from heart disease and cancer to rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and COVID-19,” said Dr. David Hess, MCG dean. “These expanding efforts in immunology will enable Georgia’s public medical school to better address big questions that affect our health, like why most patients don’t get the resounding response to immunotherapy President Jimmy Carter did to his metastatic melanoma a handful of years ago, and how to keep our immune system protecting us from disease rather than contributing to it, particularly as we age.”

The scientists, who will both be Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars, join the MCG faculty Oct. 1, and already have started strategic, aggressive recruitment of an additional 20 scientists with expertise in the cutting edge immunology field to help answer these types of big questions, Hess said. They also will be collaborating with MCG scientists already working in the field like Dr. Gang Zhou, who is working to improve the impact of immunotherapy, and Dr. David Munn, who is exploring the therapeutic potential of inhibiting a naturally occurring enzyme called IDO, which tumors exploit to protect themselves from the immune response.

“It’s a tremendous win for Georgia to recruit researchers of the caliber of Lynn Hedrick and Klaus Ley,” said Susan Shows, president of the Georgia Research Alliance. “Together, they will build an ambitious research enterprise that attracts major public and private funding, creates valuable workforce opportunities and further enriches our state’s reputation for boldly pursuing answers to real needs.”

“For us, part of the motivation is giving back, and basically providing what we can, which is immunology expertise, to hire the 20 best possible people to build an immunology institute that will eventually become world class,” said Ley.

Work at the new center will translate to better care for people, like monoclonal antibodies, cell-based therapies and new diagnostics, Ley says, and eventually enable educating the next generation of immunologists by offering a graduate program in immunology in collaboration with The Graduate School at Augusta University.

Hedrick and Ley rank among the top 0.1% of scholars worldwide publishing studies about monocytes, frontline immune responders to both infections and other invaders like cancer. Hedrick’s lab has found unique populations of these monocytes in patients with cancer, heart disease and COVID-19, including some that are particularly adept at attacking viruses and others that kill metastasizing cancer cells, work that was published in the journal Science. Her research paper identifying monocyte populations in healthy individuals and patients with cardiovascular disease was the most highly cited paper in 2021 in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. She recently received a perfect score on a large program project grant renewal to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute that is further exploring immune cell interactions in atherosclerosis and cancer.

Hedrick, who also will also serve as director of the Cancer Immunology, Inflammation and Toleration Program at the Georgia Cancer Center, joined the faculty at La Jolla in 2009 from the University of Virginia, where she was Harrison Distinguished Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics.  She was awarded the Special Recognition Award in Vascular Biology from the American Heart Association in 2013 and chaired the Gordon Research Conference on Atherosclerosis in 2019. One of her favorite aspects of her work is mentoring young scientists, and she received the Outstanding Mentor of Women Award from the American Heart Association in 2015. Hedrick chairs the Program Project Grant Review Parent Committee of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. She also is a section editor for The Journal of Immunology.

Ley’s lab has explored how monocytes also can contribute to disease, adhering to the lining of blood vessel walls and enabling development of atherosclerosis. Ley’s related work includes exploring how genetics and diet result in some regulatory T cells, key drivers of the immune response that typically reduce inflammation, instead accelerating chronic inflammation that can result in diseased, narrowed arteries. His work focuses on how the frontline, or innate, immune response as well as adaptive immune response, which is acquired, more specific immunity resulting from exposures to invaders like bacteria and viruses, both contribute to atherosclerosis, with the ultimate goal of producing a vaccine that can prevent or reduce this major cause of heart attack and stroke. His latest paper in the journal Science details how immune cells called macrophages in the mouse aorta express olfactory receptors that can “sniff out” a compound called octanal, which can trigger inflammation. There is evidence that humans with cardiovascular disease have a higher level of octanal, findings which point toward a novel point for intervention.

Ley served as director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Virginia before moving to La Jolla in 2007. He is a longtime member of the American Heart Association Council on Basic Cardiovascular Science and Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology Council and the AHA honored him with a Distinguished Scientist Award in 2016. He was honored with the Landis Award, the highest award of the Microcirculatory Society in 2017 and received a Pioneers in Cardiology Lifetime Achievement Award from the University Heart Center, Graz, Austria in 2020. He chaired the Gordon Research Conference on Atherosclerosis in 2015.

As GRA Eminent Scholars, Hedrick and Ley will occupy endowed chairs supported by state dollars and matching private funds, and will join a 72-member academy of highly acclaimed scientists recruited to the state’s research universities.

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