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Our innovation – What We’re Doing Differently

Message from the Director

Welcome to the Autoimmune Therapeutics Institute (AiTI)! I am really excited about this Institute, and what it means for our patients who suffer from immune-mediated diseases. I first became passionate about autoimmunity during my PhD thesis, when I was studying type 1 diabetes (T1D). But I became frustrated that we were only using animal models and cultured cells in our experiments – I wanted to study humans! I always believed that we needed to investigate human diseases by obtaining human tissues where the autoimmunity was happening. Frequently researchers rely on information collected from the blood of patients with autoimmunity, despite the fact that inflammation causing the disease is located within targeted tissues, not the blood. However, human pancreas is pretty hard to get from patients, which is why we weren’t studying it. Next, I met a patient with new-onset T1D and 3 other autoimmune diseases that all came at the same time. One of those diseases was vitiligo, which destroys the pigment-producing melanocytes in the skin and results in white spots. It was then and there I decided to become a dermatologist and study vitiligo, which I could see, touch, and sample without too much difficulty.


That was almost 20 years ago, and so much has happened since then. We have used a mouse model of vitiligo (yes, it IS helpful), skin from my patients, and clinical trials to understand what causes depigmenting autoimmunity in the skin. And this has translated to the first FDA-approved treatment for vitiligo, with many others on its heels. Our strategy to develop new treatments for vitiligo has been to identify “disease-driving” signaling pathways in the skin using multiomic techniques and to target these pathways with new therapeutic approaches. We are developing or helping others to develop small molecules, antibody-based biologics, siRNAs, and other active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). Additionally, we have conducted and published successful clinical trials, partnered with large and small pharma, as well as started new companies to accelerate drug developments for vitiligo. One of these companies, Villaris Therapeutics, developed a biologic for vitiligo and was acquired in 2022 – clinical trials are expected to begin within the year.


Our approach is working, and we want to leverage our experience, relationships, and resources to do this on a broader scale. Therefore, I am assembling an innovative team of physician-scientists and collaborators who are basic researchers, engineers, physicians, and industry partners to create the AiTI. Please read more about our strategy and capabilities in the Institute and reach out to us if you are interested in seeing our physicians as a patient, joining the institute as an investigator, or engaging us as a partner!



John E. Harris, MD, PhD

Founding Director, Autoimmune Therapeutics Institute
Founding Director, Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center
Professor and Chair, Department of Dermatology


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