Prior to establishing the Department of Immunology in January 1, 2002, the University of Pittsburgh, already had a long tradition of excellence in immunology research and training. Current students and postdoctoral fellows walk through hallways that are pictorial reminders of the days when Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in the 1950’s, or when Niels Jerne chaired the Microbiology Department (1962-1966) and worked on perfecting the Jerne plaque assay for antibody producing cells.
The Biomedical Science Tower, where the current Department of Immunology is located, is a vivid reminder of the day when Dr. Thomas Starzl arrived in Pittsburgh in 1981 to establish the most prominent solid organ transplant program in the world, which provided resources to further boost the research enterprise in the school of medicine. The immunological research that developed around the problem of graft rejection and tolerance induction trained numerous outstanding students and fellows.
Thirty years ago, in 1984, the University of Pittsburgh founded the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) with the renowned immunologist Dr. Ronald Herberman at its helm. This started a number of new research initiatives in cancer immunology and immunotherapy. Under the leadership of Dr. Herberman, immunology was organized as one of the programs of the Cancer Institute. The decision provided a badly needed organizational structure and some financial support for a seminar series, a journal club, annual retreats. It quickly became one of the largest UPCI programs as immunologists from all the various departments began to congregate. One of the important goals for the members of the UPCI Immunology Program was to better organize training of immunology graduate students and fellows. The excellence in both research and training became obvious and led a faculty initiative to organize a Graduate Training Program in Immunology (GTPI). This program was approved and given the authority to grant PhD degrees in Immunology, starting in the academic year 1997-1998.
Prior to this, starting in the 1960s, over 100 immunology graduate students obtained doctorates in immunology that nevertheless carried the name of other disciplines, related primarily to the students’ departments rather than their discipline. With the later restructuring of the Graduate Program of the School of Medicine into the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Program (IBGP), GTPI became one of its seven training programs. The Graduate Training Program in Immunology, distinct from the Department of Immunology now has 54 training faculty, 29 graduate students and 40 postdoctoral fellows. Six students and three fellows per year are supported by an NIH/NCI training grant obtained in 1999. Two more graduate students are supported by the DOD training grant that also started in 1999. All faculty have well funded programs (a prerequisite for membership in the program), major sources of funding being NIH (NIAID, NCI, GM), ACS, JDF, Arthritis Institute, and several other private foundations. Several faculty also have funding from the biotechnology industry. A survey done in 2000 showed total direct cost in grant funding of immunology faculty to be over $6 million per year in peer-reviewed funding (39 NIH, 3 ACS and 5 DOD) and over $600,000 in other funding.
In 2002, immunology finally found a home with the creation of the Department of Immunology under the leadership of Dr. Olivera Finn. The department started with 5 primary faculty but quickly grew to 12 in the next 10 years. A large number of outstanding young investigators, as well as several senior immunologists, were recruited to Pittsburgh through joint efforts of various departments and institutes. The almost simultaneous establishment of The Gene Therapy Institute directed by Dr. Joseph Glorioso provided additional opportunities and needs for good immunology research. The expansion of the Rheumatology Division under Dr. Timothy Wright’s leadership brought to the university several new immunology faculty. As a result the Department of Immunology also has as many as 65 secondary faculty with appointments in other departments such as Medicine, Surgery, Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry (MGB) but all with a general interest in immunology.
All faculty have well funded programs (a prerequisite for membership in the program), with major sources of funding being NIH (NIAID, NCI, GM), ACS, JDF, Arthritis Institute, and several other private foundations. Several faculty also have funding from the biotechnology industry. In 2013, Dr. Finn stepped down from the chair position and Dr. Mark Shlomchik was recruited from Yale University to lead the department. The department is expanding with recruitment of new faculty, most notably Dr. Dario Vignali as the vice chair. The department, housed in the Starzl Biomedical Science Tower has been completely refurbished to reflect the highest standards in biomedical research. With numerous state of the art core facilities housed within the department or within the same building, the department is well poised for research into the foreseeable future.