Two-and-a-half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s fair to say more people appreciate how the immune system wards off infectious disease. And lately, the Biden administration has been pushing a “moonshot” approach to fight another disease with help from the immune system: cancer.

But far too little attention is paid to curing autoimmune diseases — those that arise when patients’ immune systems attack their own healthy cells, says University of Pennsylvania scientist E. John Wherry.

He and his colleagues hope to change that with a new $50 million gift to Penn’s Colton Center for Autoimmunity, announced Wednesday morning.

The gift is from Short Hills, N.J. philanthropists Judith and Stewart Colton, who established the center at Penn a year ago with an initial $10 million donation, in search of better answers for autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and type 1 diabetes. The couple have funded similar efforts at Yale, New York, and Tel Aviv Universities.

More than 23 million people in the U.S. have an autoimmune condition, with annual health-care costs estimated to exceed $100 billion. But too often, treatments are limited to steroids and other blunt-force drugs that have a broad, suppressive effect on the immune system, said Wherry, the Colton Center’s director.

“We have a war on cancer, but we don’t really think about autoimmunity the same way,” he said.

The new funds will help the center explore several approaches that are targeted to specific autoimmune diseases, he said.

One of them is a twist on an anticancer weapon developed at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, using engineered cells called CAR-T. Much like these cells can be programmed to attack certain cancers, they also can be trained to target aberrant immune cells that cause skin-blistering conditions, Wherry said. That work is spearheaded by Penn dermatologist Aimee Payne, who cofounded Cabaletta Bio, a start-up that seeks to commercialize the approach.

Another potential way to target autoimmune conditions also is drawn from the fight against cancer, Wherry said. Some cancer drugs work by ramping up the immune system’s response, but they have the unintended consequence of triggering an autoimmune reaction. With additional study, scientists think they can dial back that process when appropriate, he said.

“We’re learning about some of the pathways that seem to be trip wires that set off autoimmunity,” he said. “If we have seen the process moving forward, we should be able to unwind the process going backward.”

The $50 million gift will enable the center to recruit new faculty and collaborate with the other Colton centers, Penn president Liz Magill said in a statement.

“We are strongest when we work as a team,” she said.

The donors are longtime philanthropists and entrepreneurs. Stewart Colton, a former executive in the metal and chemical industries, is a 1962 graduate of Penn’s Wharton School. His wife is a graduate of Boston University, and worked as a psychologist, teacher, and market researcher before founding a computer consulting firm.

In addition to Wherry and Payne, other leaders of Penn’s Colton Center include physician David Fajgenbaum, who is also a patient with an autoimmune condition called Castleman disease.