Dissecting the regulation of the immune system and optimizing its response
The immune system plays a vital role in the response to infection and cancer. Exquisite control is required in order to avoid autoimmune reactions against normal, healthy tissues. Our laboratory is investigating how this regulation is accomplished. We have a particular interest in T cell biology, influenza vaccine development, and SARS-CoV-2 dynamics. Our work will contribute to therapeutic development for autoimmune diseases, cancer, and infectious disease.
The central focus of our laboratory is to understand how the immune system is regulated such that its extraordinary ability to maintain tissue homeostasis and eliminate infectious pathogens in optimized – all without triggering collateral destruction. Our research focus includes the role of the Drak2 protein in T cell function, the immune mechanisms required to generate a “universal” influenza vaccine, and recently, factors that influence the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Our lab studies the role of Drak2 protein and its function in T cells. Mouse models lacking the Drak2 protein do not develop T-cell mediated autoimmunity but do respond effectively to pathogens. This suggests that there are different signaling pathways required for the survival of T cells in an autoreactive state compared to a pathogen-driven response. We are currently working on dissecting these pathways and developing ways to target them to specifically inhibit autoreactive T cells without causing generalized immunosuppression.
Additionally, we are investigating mechanisms that regulate antibody binding to influenza viruses in the hopes of designing more globally effective vaccines and to gain a better understanding of the association between infection and autoimmunity. We are also exploring how the immune system affects cartilage growth and the development of benign bone tumors called osteochondromas.
Our laboratory was recently involved in a COVID-19 study launched at St. Jude. This unique research endeavor, initiated at the very beginning of the pandemic, followed 1,200 employees before and after exposure to the virus. Samples collected before people were exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus offer us a unique opportunity to examine factors that impact the variable response to this virus that may lead to mild COVID-19 symptoms compared to more severe cases.
Our research, conducted primarily in mouse models of disease, is highly collaborative in nature and involves a variety of techniques and methodologies, including microscopy, flow cytometry, metabolomics, and T cell functional assays. The ultimate aim of our program is to discover novel therapies for autoimmune disease, infectious diseases, and cancer.