Dr. Birnbaum received the Michelson Prize for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research 2020 for: “Repertoire-Scale Determination of T Cell Recognition and Cross-Reactivity to HIV via pMHC Lentiviral Display”.
Dr. Birnbaum’s research focuses on understanding and manipulating ‘natural’ adaptive immune responses in the context of cancer and infection by using a variety of strategies and techniques including protein biochemistry, protein engineering, sequencing, and bioinformatics. Applying a novel approach, he systematically examines the antigen recognition repertoire of any given T or NK cell receptor and uses this information to engineer new methods to more specifically mount a potent immune response.
Dr. Birnbaum obtained an A.B. in Chemical and Physical Biology at Harvard University in 2008. He then moved to Stanford University, where he completed his Ph.D. in Immunology in 2014, followed by postdoctoral research. Dr. Birnbaum joined the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT in 2016 as an Assistant Professor.
I worked to develop a method that better lets us uncover what T cells recognize during the course of disease. We use it to vet hundreds of millions of possible T cell targets at once. It has allowed us to help define the ‘rules’ of how T cells can recognize the billions of possible targets that one may encounter in their life without inadvertently attacking healthy tissues.
I have always been fascinated by the numbers game inherent to immunology – your body has millions of unique T and B cells to respond to disease, tasked with protecting you against any infection you may encounter in your life. The molecular diversity needed to make this work – and the tight control of that diversity – has kept me interested in immunology my entire scientific career.
The Michelson Prize is funding our development and deployment of a technology that would supercharge our ability to define what T cells recognize during the course of HIV infection. The support provided by this award will let us work faster than would be possible otherwise. We will be trying many of our best ideas at once to press this technology into service, in a time where better tools to study infectious disease are clearly needed.
Dr. Hill received the Michelson Prize for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research 2020 for: “Exploiting T Follicular Helper Cells as an Innovative Tool to Discover Targets for Long-Lived Humoral Immunity”.
Dr. Hill’s research is focussed on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underpin robust CD4+ T helper cell responses to vaccination and infection in humans; she’s particularly interested in targeting T follicular helper cells to improve vaccine responses, measuring T cell receptor repertoire alterations after vaccination, and developing novel methods to identify antigen-specific CD4+ T cells.
Dr. Hill studied Biomedical Science at the University of Adelaide and completed a Ph.D. at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. In 2015, Dr. Hill joined the Babraham Institute in Cambridge to conduct postdoctoral research. Since 2018, she’s a Research Fellow in the Department of Immunology and Pathology at Monash University.
The immune system is like a giant puzzle with so many different pieces that need to work together to keep us healthy. I want to work out how best to engage the right puzzle pieces with a vaccine to generate protection that lasts a lifetime.
I’m long been fascinated by how the immune system can develop a memory of what it has seen previously – we each have billions and billions of B and T cells, each with its own type of receptor that has the potential to recognize a different small part of a pathogen. These cells can wait your whole life to be called upon to act. The complexity and diversity of our T and B cell repertoires are just amazing.
Similar to our DNA code, everybody’s immune system is uniquely different. This is a major challenge when developing a vaccine, which needs to works for the majority of people. However, we identified that in the blood of people who had received influenza or malaria vaccine, we could find a number of immune cells (T follicular helper cells) with receptors made from a common DNA sequence. The Michelson prize will enable me to find more of these shared receptor sequences, and work backwards to uncover exactly what it is that the immune system is responding to. I believe that these common targets have great potential to be developed into vaccines.
The Michelson Prize comes at a critical time in my career and will enable me to gain more independence as a researcher. It will support me to continue to study a type of immune cell that is critical for generating long-lived immunity, the T follicular helper cells, but in much greater detail than has previously been studied. With the Michelson Prize, I will focus on Group A Streptococcus infection, which is amongst the top ten global causes of death related to infection, and for which there still is no effective vaccine. I will be supported by the prize to apply cutting-edge technologies to study hundreds of thousands of cells in molecular detail, with the aim to develop a novel approach to vaccines design that exploits similarities in the receptors on these cells to pinpoint what to target on a pathogen to make an effective vaccine.
Dr. Mandal is developing new technologies that identify the shape of proteins that could provide new targets for cancer immunotherapy, with potential applications to other diseases.
Dr. Mamedov is using gene-editing technologies to create a new platform for understanding an important set of immune cells that may provide the keys to the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of infectious and non-communicable diseases such as cancer.
Dr. Sahu is building novel artificial-intelligence (AI) deep-learning frameworks to devise new therapeutic strategies for cancer immunotherapy, with potential applications in human immunology.
Dr. MacKay is studying recently described subset of immune cells called tissue resident memory T cells, which combat various viral infections and cancer. The research that will be funded by the Prize will examine immune responses by tissue resident memory T cells to harness their protective functions to improve vaccines and immunotherapies.
Dr. Satpathy is focused on combining disciplines of genomics and human immunology. His research will identify key gene regulatory mechanisms that trigger protective immunity following vaccination using novel epigenomic sequencing technologies applied directly to patient samples. The Prize will allow him to greatly accelerate his work, advancing both 3D and single-cell epigenetic technologies to human immunology and vaccine research.
Dr. Illing was the first to identify spliced peptides during a viral infection. This work involves an innovative new approach for identifying influenza-specific peptide antigens with implications for the development of vaccines against both seasonal and pandemic influenza strains. The Prize money will provide greater resources to expand understanding of how a viral antigen is recognized by the human immune system.