The Feinstein Institute For Medical Research

Research Pioneers at the Feinstein Institute

Kevin J. Tracey, MD


Director and Chief Executive

Head, Center for Biomedical Sciences

Main Area of Research

Unlocking secrets of the inflammatory reflex and changing lives.

A Story of Hope

Each year, 220,000 people die from severe sepsis, an abnormal immune response to infection or injury. Dr. Kevin Tracey and his colleagues are mining the body’s immune system to solve the sepsis puzzle. In a recent major advance, they discovered that the brain works like a general to send orders directly to the immune system. This has altered the way that people think about how the body protects itself from infection and injury.

Surprisingly, the vagus nerve — a long, thin nerve that snakes from the brain down through the abdomen — controls the body’s inflammatory response. Stimulating the vagus nerve reduces the production of cytokines, or immune system mediators, and blocks inflammation. The circuitry, called the “inflammatory reflex,” is controlled by a molecule at the end of the circuit, acetylcholine. Dr. Tracey’s team is now involved in testing the anti-inflammatory effects of vagus nerve stimulation in clinical studies that may someday be used to prevent sepsis, or reverse the process before it turns deadly.

Dr. Tracey is a Cornell-trained neurosurgeon who practiced for a decade before turning full-time to his research laboratory. One of his first patients after medical school was Janice, an infant who was fighting for her life on the burn unit at New York Hospital. More than 75 percent of her skin was destroyed and these wounds provided open access for pathogen invasion. Her immune system attacked the bacteria, but a “cytokine storm” caused damage to her organs, leaving her life in the balance. She died. Dr. Tracey became fixed on finding a treatment for severe sepsis. This work has already yielded experimental therapies that either block the effects of cytokines directly or turn off their release. Janice’s legacy may be medicines that prevent others from a similar tragedy.

Funding Future Research

Dr. Tracey is expanding his cutting-edge work in understanding how the inflammatory reflex relates to disease and how medicine can find new treatments to save lives. Visionary supporters can assist in funding new and crucial areas of research, including:

  • The Total Immune System. Understanding how the brain is wired to control the immune system throughout the body.
  • Cystic Fibrosis. Developing a program to expand on the discovery that HMGB1 causes damage in the lungs of a person with cystic fibrosis.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Expanding work on the existing program and bringing new breakthroughs to the millions who suffer from this disease.
  • Metabolism and Obesity. Expanding the research that looks at immune system molecules controlling body weight. These molecules may account for weight loss that occurs during illness and weight gain in obesity.
  • Diabetes. Looking at turning off damaging molecules that cause pancreatic injury and obesity.
  • Biological Threat Agents. Expanding the program in developing treatments for exposure to biological warfare agents.
  • Injury and Trauma. Developing an intervention to prevent organ failure and lung damage after severe trauma. Trauma from motor vehicle accidents and work injuries is a major cause of death in young Americans. Most of these deaths are the result of sepsis.
  • New Drugs. Tissue damage that typically occurs after heart attack and stroke may be treated with new drug regimens.

Dr. Tracey

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