The Institute

Prof. Lanzavecchia

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) opened in spring 2000 in Bellinzona, the capital of the Italian-speaking swiss Canton Ticino, and headed by Professor Antonio Lanzavecchia, with the aim of contributing to the progress of biomedical research by studying basic mechanisms of immune defence against bacteria, viruses, tumours and neurodegenerative diseases. The building, made of glass and steel, was designed by the famous architect Luigi Snozzi, within view of Castelgrande , the huge medieval castle in the center of town. The IRB offers state-of-the-art facilities distributed over 1,400 square meters of laboratories located in the main building. Core facilities are available for analyzing nucleic acids and proteins, for cell differentiation and cytofluorimetry, as well as for high resolution microscopy and image analysis. 

The core funding of the IRB comes from individuals and institutions who share the IRB mission. The Helmut Horten Foundation, the Gustav & Ruth Jacob Foundation, as well as the Swiss Confederation, the Canton Ticino and the City of Bellinzona enable the day to day research and teaching activities of the IRB. The Helmut Horten Foundation, the main sponsor, has initially contributed with 10 million Swiss francs for the laboratory equipment, and continues contributing yearly to the IRB core funding. In addition, the Swiss National Fund, the European Union, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, among others, fund IRB research programs.

The IRB has now gained an international reputation as a renowned centre of immunology research. IRB group leaders have established an effective network of collaborations with leading institutions all over the world. The IRB studies are continuously published in leading scientific academic journals, and most of the IRB Group Leaders are also appointed Professors at Swiss and foreign Universities. The IRB is affiliated to the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI) since 2010, and is a member of the Swiss Vaccine Research Institute (SVRI) and of the Institute for Arthritis Research (IAR). 

The first thirteen years of activity have been punctuated by the development of techniques and several discoveries. For instance, the development of an efficient system for producing human monoclonal antibodies, the reconstruction of the human immune system in a model, the characterization of cells and mechanisms leading to autoimmune and degenerative diseases, the discovery of novel mechanisms governing white blood cell migration, and the development of an approach that reduces the protein deposit in the brain, that causes Alzheimer’s disease. The IRB is continuously expanding its programme in human immunology. The IRB's vision is to create the best possible conditions for its members to do highest level research in complete autonomy and with appropriate technical and logistic means. The Institute encourages the collaboration of research teams working in different fields of biomedical research.
A vibrant doctoral (PhD) programme allows students enrolled in universities around the world to carry out their thesis in one of the IRB research groups. So far more than 40 IRB students have successfully defended their thesis and obtained excellent positions in leading institutions all over the world.

An Important Incentive for Science in Ticino

Prof. Noseda

The founding of the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI) in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland in October of 1996 has been immensely important in regard to the development of scientific and cultural activities in the Canton Ticino.

Nowadays, the scientific research at the USI is mostly carried out within research institutes and laboratories connected to its 4 faculties (Communication Sciences, Economics, Informatics and Architecture) which  drive dynamic, competitive and innovative research programmes covering a variety of topics. The affiliation of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine to the USI in 2010 has developed a new research area in the field of biomedicine. Biomedicine is a part of biology that deals with processes at work in the physiological and pathological functions of the human organism. Biomedical research on molecular, cellular, and clinical levels contributes to the further development of new diagnostic and therapeutic procedures and is also essential for medical progress.

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine is an active partner in national and international research networks. In particular, the Institute has established many scientific cooperation between research institutes within and outside of Switzerland.

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine is a pillar and unique institution in Ticino:

  • It participates in the expansion of knowledge in essential fields of science
  • It stimulates and supports the theoretical and practical levels of biomedical research 
  • It contributes to the professional training and further education of scientists in the area of human biology and medicine
  • It acts as a scientific partner for the pharmaceutical and biotechnological industry in Ticino and vicinity.

The IRB focus: Human-Immunology

Even though immunology is not a new scientific discipline, it has developed most significantly in recent years. It examines the mechanisms at work when a higher organism defends itself against viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and the patterns by which foreign elements such as transplants or tumour cells are recognized. For this reason, immunology is very important for all fields of medicine such as infectious diseases, oncology, chronic inflammations, autoimmunity, and transplantation. The influence of this research has long been underrated, a situation that changed only when the Swiss immunologist Rolf Zinkernagel was awarded the Nobel Prize.

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine sets itself off from other institutions because of its exclusive focus on human immunology. Its research activities include aspects of immune defence and regulation, the mechanisms through which pathogens and tumour cells escape from immunity-monitoring;  the mechanisms of protein production and transport in case of Alzheimer’s disease; the role of microRNAs, a relatively new class of regulatory molecules, in the development and function of the immune cells; the various aspects of T cell physiology, including protein and membrane trafficking, signal transduction, control of cell growth and intercellular communications during T cell development and in immunopathological conditions. Computational, biochemical and biophysical tools are also used to determine the structure of proteins and to characterize their interactions with other molecules, with particular attention to antibody-antigen interactions in infectious diseases. Moreover, research also focus on the relationship between immune defence mechanisms and other biological functions in the human organism.

A Bridge between the North and the South

There are only a few research institutes in Switzerland equivalent to the Institute for Research in Biomedicine. Those are the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Lausanne, the Institute for Allergy and Asthma Research in Davos, the Theodor-Kocher-Institute at the University of Bern and the Institute for Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich. Due to its own focus on human immunology, it presented no problem for the IRB to establish a productive cooperation with already established institutes which concentrate predominantly on pure research. Moreover, the Institute contributed to further biomedical research in Switzerland.

As a natural consequence of its cultural and geographical location, the Canton Ticino is primarily oriented toward the southern regions. Both in Lombardy and in Piedmont there are important biomedical institutions which have established research-based cooperation with Ticino. Most of the IRB Group Leaders are also appointed Professors at Swiss Universities (Bern) and Federal Institutes (EPFZ and EPFL) as well as Italian Universities. 

A Modern and Efficient Structure

Gabriele Gendotti

The Institute is administrated by a foundation, which is headed by the attorney Gabriele Gendotti and its financial security is guaranteed through the support of the Swiss government, private and public sponsors, and private donations. The annual costs of operation are about eight million Swiss francs. The Institute currently hosts 8 research teams supervised by renowned scientists and altogether employs around 80 staff members, including administrative and technical personnel. In addition to the director, the Institute has a scientific advisory board consisting of five members, which regularly evaluates the Institute's research programs and guarantees the quality of completed research.

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