Into the unknown: Diving deep to research autoimmune disorders

A look inside a collaboration with Yale University focused on tough-to-treat diseases.

Published January 9, 2020 / All Stories

A quest to understand the rare and complex


It may seem like a simple question, but the answer can often be complex. Especially for scientists taking calculated risks in the lab to better understand complicated and sometimes rare diseases that affect people around the globe.

The questions of “why,” along with “how,” were central in an ongoing, multi-year collaboration between AbbVie and the Yale School of Medicine, a leader in immunology research.

This research-driven partnership sought to advance understanding of autoimmune and inflammatory disease, specifically the molecular, cellular and genetic underpinnings of these diseases. Since the partnership kickoff in 2014, it has focused on gastrointestinal, rheumatologic and dermatologic disorders, which can be tough to treat.

Today, scientists inside both AbbVie and Yale are deep in research projects that closely examine the mechanisms of these disorders with the goal of developing better, more targeted treatments.

Shared interests but different strengths

The structure of the partnership allowed each group to focus on its strengths while still collaborating, says Richard A. Flavell, Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Immunology at Yale University and founding steering committee member.

“One of the key principles in this alliance was that the projects that worked best were the ones where both sides contributed, both in terms of engagement and utilization of our unique capabilities,” Flavell says.

Yale team members drove research and took on tasks like identifying targets of action, bringing in AbbVie scientists for specialized needs like high throughput screening for chemical compounds, says steering committee member Marc Levesque.

AbbVie also brings the experience of understanding the path from research to a potential treatment for patients, with potential for impact on patients serving as a key consideration when evaluating projects, says Levesque, M.D, Ph.D., senior director of discovery at AbbVie.

Potential for patient impact

Taking smart risks is a critical element of advancing scientific work, says Lisa Olson, vice president, discovery, site head of AbbVie’s Bioresearch Center and founding member of the AbbVie-Yale collaboration steering committee.

“The stakes are high for people experiencing these chronic diseases, which are some of the most challenging disorders anyone can face,” Olson says. “It’s only through dedicated research efforts that we can deepen our understanding and create impact.”

Through the partnership, a few key projects were prioritized that could have implications for diseases like lupus, Crohn’s, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma, a rare disease which affects the skin and connective tissues.

One such project is led by Eric Meffre, Ph.D., associate professor of immunobiology and medicine at Yale, who has spent close to two decades researching the mechanisms of B cells, a type of white blood cell that’s part of the immune system and plays an important role in many autoimmune disorders.

Like many other research projects, Meffre started with a hunch and a hunger and began to dig deep into B cells and gene mutations to understand what impact they create in the body.

He recalls bringing initial, limited data to the AbbVie-Yale steering committee to secure additional time and funding to continue the research.

“When I submitted the proposal, I didn’t have much data but it was a project with a lot of potential,” Meffre says. “And they said, ‘keep going and see if this works.’”

‘The excitement of the unknown’

There’s inherent risk in pursuing early discovery research projects, Flavell says, but both AbbVie and Yale realize that uncharted territory often presents great potential. He is leading two ongoing projects, one that examines the mechanism that drives the manifestation of several autoimmune diseases and the other that hypothesizes the cause of scleroderma and how to target it.

“It makes sense to look for adventurous projects, which can jumpstart a new area of activity,” he says. “Our aim is that something valuable comes out from both a science perspective and a human medicine perspective.”

The promise of advancing science is what keeps scientists motivated in the lab every day.

“It’s the excitement of the unknown,” Meffre says. “It’s finding out whether you had the right assumption and then taking the next step forward.”

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