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Kipnis named BJC Investigator

Leader in groundbreaking research on interaction of brain and immune system to join faculty

by Tamara BhandariNovember 13, 2019

Photo by Dan Addison/UVA Communications

Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, an internationally recognized scientific leader in how the nervous and immune systems interact in neurodegenerative, neuroinflammatory and neurodevelopmental disorders, has been named a BJC Investigator at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He will join the Department of Pathology and Immunology, with secondary appointments in the neurology, neuroscience and neurosurgery departments.

Kipnis is currently the Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Va. He also directs the Center for Brian Immunology and Glia at UVA. His appointment begins July 1.

The BJC Investigators Program is focused on basic science and was inspired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s philosophy of investing in scientists with exceptional creative talent. The program aims to recruit innovative scientists who bring novel insights to major biological questions and whose ideas have the potential to lead to new ways of understanding health and disease.

“I am thrilled that Dr. Jonathan Kipnis has accepted our offer to join the School of Medicine,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “His discovery of lymphatic vessels in the tissues around the brain has been a breakthrough in understanding how the immune system plays a key role in neurological diseases and has transformed the field of neuroimmunology. His energy, enthusiasm and pioneering spirit are contagious, and I am grateful to BJC HealthCare for providing resources through the BJC Investigators Program to bring brilliant scientists like Jony to our medical school. Almost his entire team will be moving to St. Louis. We are realizing the vision of BJC HealthCare that this initiative would boost the impact of our academic partnership and, in turn, how BJC and Washington University contribute to the vibrant future of our city.”

BJC Investigators are recommended by a search committee of 42 leading scientists at the School of Medicine. The committee’s charge is to select candidates who already have indelibly changed their fields, whose discoveries will result in new and fundamental shifts in scientific thinking, and whose laboratories have become hubs for even more work that can galvanize the school’s preclinical departments.

Kipnis is the fourth BJC Investigator named. Eventually, the program will bring a total of 10 researchers and their teams to the School of Medicine and the life sciences ecosystem in St. Louis.

Kipnis’ work uncovered an unexpected mechanism by which the immune system influences brain function. In 2015, he discovered a network of vessels that drains fluid, immune-system cells and small molecules from the brain into the lymph nodes, where many immune-system cells reside. Before Kipnis’ discovery, conventional wisdom held that the brain had no direct connection to the immune system. The findings suggest that malfunctions in these vessels could contribute to a variety of neurological disorders with an immunological component, including Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. Kipnis’ work is particularly exciting right now because of compelling evidence for immune and inflammatory dysfunction in a growing number of neurological diseases, Perlmutter noted.

Kipnis also showed that cells of the immune system play a key role in recovery from brain injury, as well as in basic functions such as learning and memory. In 2017, he found that the immune-system molecule interferon gamma ­– a central element of the body’s defenses against bacteria, viruses and parasites – is also necessary for normal social behavior in animals ranging from flies to zebrafish to mice. The findings suggest that dysfunction in the immune system might contribute to social deficits in neurological and psychiatric conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.

At Washington University, Kipnis intends to work on designing new treatments to target the immune system for the benefit of cognitive and mental disorders, and developing therapies for neurodegenerative disorders.

Kipnis earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, followed by his doctoral degree in neurobiology and neuroimmunology at Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He joined the UVA faculty in 2007. He has won several honors and awards, including the Prize of Excellence from the Israeli Knesset in 2004, the Jordi Folch-Pi Award from the American Society for Neurochemistry in 2012, and the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2018.