Controlling the Immune System

Unlocking the fundamental rules of immune control to facilitate the most precise personalized medicine and the broadest population-based vaccine and disease prevention strategies.

The immune system is responsible for protecting the human body from attack by foreign organisms by recognizing potentially harmful agents, isolating and eliminating them, and then remembering them so that future invasions can be dealt with more swiftly.

Our work will focus on controlling the immune system and will engage the considerable immune expertise within Duke Health to define the population norms for immunity and correlate that profile with the systemic manifestations of disease. In addition, we will develop a generalizable approach toward understanding immune function that will allow us to anticipate and prevent the development of tumors, infections and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes. 

We will apply our investigative abilities across the spectrum of immune biology to seek out the critical secrets of how immune function naturally controls the vast majority of cancer, infections and autoimmune uprisings, and then to translate those discoveries into actionable therapeutic strategies with the goal of developing pharmacological control of all aspects of immunity. We will progressively acquire the ability to finely tune an immune response against a specific organism or tumor, and to forestall a damaging immune response to a specific organ in the case of transplantation or autoimmunity. 

This advanced understanding of immunity will lead to careful control of tolerance, which would save lives by making it possible for all transplantation to be successful. Additionally, expanding our understanding of tolerance will allow us to train each person’s immune system to recognize cancer as foreign and redirect all cancer therapies towards immune-modulation, and to prevent infectious diseases such as HIV by vaccination of populations.


  • Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies certain cells of the body as foreign like:
    • Multiple Sclerosis, Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Systemic Lupus Eythematosus
  • Diseases can also occur when the immune system fails to distinguish healthy cells from unhealthy cells:
    • Cancer & Immune Deficiency Diseases
  • The immune system is continuously assessing the body and making decisions about what belongs and what does not. The ability to finely control the immune system remains a challenge in modern medicine.


  • Control the immune system to:
    • Understand differing outcomes;
    • Harness as therapeutic strategy. 
  • Two Lines of Investigation:
    1. Define population norms for immunity.
    2. Link basic immune knowledge to the clinic.


Local Impact at Duke

  • Improve the ability to transplant cells, tissues, and organs without the effects of non-specific immunosuppressive drugs.
  • Develop better treatments for cancer with a focus on curative cancer immunotherapy.
  • Enhance treatment and prevention of autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, and Lupus.

​Global Impact

  • Create a greater impact on developing preventative therapies:
    • HIV vaccines
    • Cancer vaccine development
    • Vaccines against new infectious diseases
  • Enhance the ability to link immune responsiveness to disease susceptibility.
  • Improved the ability to anticipate disease, maintain health, and manage populations.