New centre for autoimmune diseases to be based at WEHI


By Siobhan Calafiore

21 Nov 2023

Australia is set to be home to a world-leading $100 million research centre that seeks to revolutionise how autoimmune diseases are understood and treated.

The Snow Centre for Immune Health, which will be based out of Melbourne’s Walter & Eliza Hall Institute and led alongside the Royal Melbourne Hospital, aims to transform immunological research and personalised medicine for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, as well as asthma and allergies.

It comes as WEHI announced the appointment of world-renowned immunology expert Professor Ken Smith as its new director following a global search.

The philanthropic Snow Medical Research Foundation will establish the research centre in what has been described as one of Australia’s largest and longest running philanthropic partnerships, with an “initial commitment” of $100 million over 10 years.

“We searched the country to find the best teams with the brightest ideas, and we chose to home this project at WEHI as we are confident it will help transform the lives of so many Australians with immunological disease,” said chair Tom Snow.

According to WEHI, the substantial and long-term funding will help support some of Australia’s best scientists to pursue high-risk, high-reward work that could fundamentally change the treatment landscape for immunological diseases.

WEHI acting director Professor Alan Cowman said the Snow Centre for Immune Health will revolutionise healthcare by focusing on proactively predicting and preventing, instead of reacting to and treating, immune illness and disorders.

“While research into immune health has traditionally focused on specific diseases or cells, the Snow Centre for Immune Health will invert this and look at the immune system from a ‘whole-of-system’ perspective – like we do for the cardiovascular and respiratory systems,” he said in a statement.

“The centre will rapidly accelerate this growing field of research and do it at a scale not seen anywhere else in the world.”

Professor Jo Douglass

Professor Jo Douglass from the Royal Melbourne Hospital who will co-lead the centre said that the long-term vision and funding from the Snow Medical Research Foundation would ensure her team could move beyond the short-term thinking that currently slows down major research discoveries from being translated.

The Snow Medical partnership will also fund research clinics progressively across Victoria, which will allow patients to join immune system trials, while also concurrently treating those most at need with the latest research treatments.

Meanwhile, Professor Smith will assume the role as WEHI director in May next year after returning from the UK, where he currently heads the Cambridge University’s Department of Medicine since 2010.

According to his biography, Professor Smith’s lab runs a translational program in autoimmune disease (particularly SLE, vasculitis and IBD) that has led to the discovery of a prognosis-predicting biomarker entering clinical trials, and to the identification of new pathways driving disease outcomes in autoimmunity and infection.

He is expected to bring a distinct global perspective, having amassed scientific research links spanning multiple countries including Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and parts of Africa, and with long-standing connections with Europe and the US.

A WEHI alum, he will become the institute’s seventh director in just over a century.

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