What are you working on?
In our lab, we work at the interface of the physical sciences and life sciences. My own graduate training was in polymeric materials physics/chemistry. Then in my post-doctoral work, I moved into the life sciences field of immunology. What we do here is bring those two areas together. We try to use new kinds of materials as a way to either study immunology, study how immune cells work, or make new types of therapies.
We focus on the biology of how immune responses work. Then, by building on what we know about the cell and molecular biology of the immune system, we try to design rational, safe vaccines. For example, we’re putting a lot of effort into making materials that, when injected as a vaccine, can mimic the cascade of events that happen during a natural infection. Our immune systems are evolutionarily engineered to respond very rapidly and robustly. We’re creating vaccines that can do that, and are simultaneously safe and easy to manufacture. That’s one of the main focuses of the lab.
Can you discuss a particular vaccine project you are working on?
In the work where we’ve made the most headway, we haven’t focused on a particular disease at the start. Because there are a lot of things we believe would be characteristic of any good vaccine, or that would be characteristic of a class of vaccines, we begin with a more general study. Many of the infections that we don’t have good vaccines for––such as HIV, Hepatitis C, malaria, and so on ––have certain common traits. For instance, we think that a good vaccine would have to elicit both potent CD8 T-cell and antibody- based immunity. So we began by asking how we could make a vaccine that can potently stimulate both arms of the immune response––the T-cell and the B-cell side of the immune response––to give that kind of protection.
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