Two University of Pittsburgh Researchers Received Prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Award New Innovator Award to support unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.
Alok Joglekar, assistant professor at the Center for Systems Immunology and the Department of Immunology of the Medicine Schooland Tagbo Niepa, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Swanson School of Engineering, will receive a total of more than $4 million to support their scientific research projects. As part of the NIH High-risk, high-reward research programthe awards recognize exceptionally creative early-career scientists pursuing exceptionally innovative research.
“This award has tremendous value because it funds great ideas that are in early development but have high potential for impact,” Joglekar said. “For early career researchers like me, this support is hugely important because it allows us to dive headfirst into these ideas and gives us a cushion to take risks and innovate.”
Adjust T cells
Joglekar’s laboratory focuses on engineering molecules to manipulate immune system T cells to boost tumor-killing prowess in cancer or prevent them from attacking healthy tissue in autoimmune diseases.
T cells respond to pathogens, good microbes, and the body’s own cells when T cell receptors recognize unique antigens that are displayed on MHC (major histocompatibility complex) molecules. It’s usually a “one-way street” with T cells responding to target cells, but Joglekar and his team engineered MHC molecules to have signaling components, creating a new class of molecules called SABR. When engineered to carry SABRs, immune cells can respond to T cells and manipulate their function.
“We basically converted a one-way street into a two-way street,” Joglekar said. “We know the concept works, and within the next five years we want to set up preclinical studies that we hope will eventually lead to new treatments for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. and multiple sclerosis and improve immunotherapies against tumours. We also hope to use this platform to modify specific functions of the immune system to better understand it.
The microbiome as medicine
Niepa, who heads the MicroBioInterface Laboratoryhas been recognized for his research in the development of capsules aimed at restoring the microbiome after it has been disrupted by infections or other diseases.
The the capsule uses unique materials to mimic the conditions of a microbe’s natural environment, facilitate the growth of previously difficult-to-grow species, and avoid the growth biases that occur in traditional crops when different microbes compete for space and nutrients.
“With this technology, we can actually collect and store samples from healthy individuals, screen them to understand their microbiome composition, and then administer them to the patient when they are sick,” Niepa said.
One of the capsules’ targets is people who have contracted Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, a bacteria that causes serious intestinal problems and often eliminates good intestinal bacteria. One day, thanks to Niepa’s research, the simple act of swallowing a pill could restore intestinal balance and promote a healthy microbiome.
“If this project is successful, it could mean a huge shift in how we think about disease and medicine,” Niepa said. “This work creates a necessary framework for future research into manipulating the human microbiome to prevent and even cure disease.”
The NIH grant numbers are DP2AI176138 (Joglekar) and DP2GM14955 (Niepa).
—Asher Jones and Maggie Lindenberg