Immunology Research

ImmunologyThe Department of Microbiology has strength in many different areas of immunological research which also spill over into the accompanying areas of Microbial Pathogenesis and Genetics, Virology, Structural Biology/Biophysics and Cancer. Most basic studies in these areas directly impact our understanding of the immune system in health and disease and a strength of our department is the cross fertilization between these basic research areas. Our faculty perform research on a wide spectrum of fundamental immunological problems including: 1) developmental and environmental control of T and B cell origins 2) basic cellular and molecular mechanisms controlling the function of these cells and their interactions with the innate immune system, 3) the regulation of the effector activities and interactions of these cell types in systemic and mucosal immune responses to infectious agents, 4) the role of these elements of the immune system in inflammatory responses involved in allergy, autoimmune diseases and atherosclerosis and 5) development of vaccines and drugs to prevent or provide  effective therapies for these diseases. 


Scott Barnum, Ph.D.
Our lab is broadly interested in inflammation in the CNS and focuses on model systems to address questions related to CNS innate immunity.  Currently we are focusing on experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, the animal model for multiple sclerosis, experimental cerebral malaria, the animal model for human cerebral malaria and amyothrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  Using these models we examine, with our collaborators, for the role, that complement, adhesion molecules and C-reactive protein play in disease development and progression.  We employ a wide variety of techniques using a broad array of mutant mice.  Our focus is mechanistic but with a strong emphasis on moving towards translation studies, developing proof of concept for therapeutic approaches for these CNS diseases.

Peter Burrows, Ph.D.
We are interested in the development of B lymphocytes and their subsequent antigen-dependent differentiation into effector cells. Immunoglobulin (Ig) gene rearrangements, as well as a number of essential changes in gene expression, take place as cells progress through this differentiation pathway. Our laboratory has been using both cellular and molecular approaches to characterize precursors of human B lineage cells and to identify novel genes whose expression is developmentally regulated. One new subfamily of genes that we have identified encodes proteins with homology to the Fc receptors for immunoglobulins (FcR). The two members of this family, FCRLA and FCRLB differ from previously identified FcR and other FcR-like (FCRL) molecules in that they are intracellular proteins. We have recently shown that FCRLA is a resident endoplasmic reticulum protein that binds Ig in this organelle. In striking contrast to the conventional plasma membrane FcRs, FCRLA binds multiple isotypes of Ig, IgM, IgG, and IgA. We are currently testing the hypothesis that FCRLA is important in the initial metabolism of Ig in B cells and thus in normal immune system function. Our findings thus far suggest a novel role for this protein in Ig assembly or degradation. Defects in human FCRLA expression may thus lead to autoimmunity or immunodeficiency diseases.


David Chaplin, M.D., Ph.D.
Dr. Chaplin’s laboratory aims to define the ways innate immune stimuli modulate allergic inflammatory responses that are manifest in tissues through the action of the adaptive immune response. He has a special interest in the ways commensal and pathogenic microbes that are present in the lung alter allergic inflammatory responses such as those that underlie asthmatic inflammation. He is testing the hypothesis that airway microbes impact the quality and quantity of asthmatic inflammation largely through their induction of myeloid-derived regulatory cells (MDRC). Lung and airway MDRC, defined by Dr. Chaplin’s laboratory in 2011, constitute several discrete populations of cells that determine the overall inflammatory tone in the tissues through their production of cytokines, chemokines, and reactive nitrogen and oxygen free radical species. Dr. Chaplin’s laboratory demonstrated in studies using a mouse model that superoxide-producing MDRC dramatically accentuate airway hyperresponsiveness after exposure to aerosolized antigen. In contrast, populations of nitric oxide-producing MDRC blunt airway hyperresponsiveness, suggesting that the nitric oxide/superoxide axis may be a valuable target for future development of novel anti-asthmatic therapeutics.

Hui Hu, Ph.D.
One of the major research projects in the Hu laboratory is to study Tfh cell differentiation and germinal center (GC) responses. The humoral immune response is one of the two effector arms of the immune system. Studies have shown that CD4+ T follicular helper (Tfh) cells are essential for long-lived, high affinity antibody responses. Yet the complex regulation that determines the initial development of Tfh cells, their developmental progression in germinal centers, and their fates after an immune response dissolves, is still not fully understood. The Hu laboratory is interested in identifying novel pathways underlying the differentiation of Tfh cells in humoral responses and designing new strategies to manipulate humoral responses for treatment of infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders. Recently the Hu laboratory has discovered that transcription factor Foxp1 is a rate-limiting and essential negative regulator of Tfh cell differentiation, drastically affecting GC and antibody responses (Nat. Immunol. 2014).

The Hu laboratory is also working to find ways to activate T cells under immunosuppressive circumstances. Much of the understanding of molecular mechanisms regulating immune responses is centered on pathways and processes that promote cell activation, division and differentiation. The Hu laboratory has demonstrated that cell-intrinsic signaling pathways are required to maintain mature T cells in a quiescent state (Nat. Immunol. 2011). If these pathways are disrupted, resting T cells become aberrantly activated even in the absence of antigen challenge. The Hu laboratory is interested in identifying regulatory genes and pathways that actively restrain T cell activation, and defining the roles of such negative regulatory pathways in controlling T cell quiescence, effector responses, memory maintenance, and tumor immunology.

Louis B. Justement, Ph.D.
Ongoing studies in the laboratory focus on elucidation of molecular mechanisms that control the T-dependent as well as the T-independent humoral immune response.  Projects in the laboratory focus on a range of specific processes that relate to; 1) maintenance and function of the marginal zone in the spleen and responses to blood borne pathogens, 2) initiation and maintenance of the germinal center reaction following challenge with T-dependent antigens, 3) the role of CD19 in regulating the duration of the primary humoral response and the formation of memory, and 4) the role of the adaptor protein HSH2 in regulating immunoglobulin class switching and terminal differentiation in response to T-independent and T-dependent antigens. A common theme for all of the projects listed above is the analysis of intracellular signaling processes that promote B cell activation, survival and differentiation. The laboratory has a long-standing interest in structure/function analysis of co-receptors on B cells, including CD45 and CD22. More recently, the laboratory has become interested in determining the functional role of the B cell co-receptor CD19 in regulating the primary humoral response and the generation of memory B cells through the use of transgenic mouse lines that express CD19 with specific mutations in cytoplasmic tyrosine residues. Studies focused on an analysis of the molecular mechanisms by which the adaptor protein HSH2 regulates B cell class switching utilize mouse models in which HSH2 expression has been modulated in the B cell lineage. Studies have determined that this adaptor functions downstream of TNFR family members and modulates distal signaling events important for terminal B cell differentiation. Studies related to marginal zone and germinal center biology focus on the cross-talk between different receptor types in trans that promote proper cellular development and function and rely on a wide range of knockout and transgenic mouse lines. Additionally, studies are ongoing to characterize the expression and function of the TREM locus receptor TREM-Like Transcript 2 (TLT2).  TLT2 is expressed on cells that play a role in the innate and adaptive immune responses and has been shown to potentiate cellular responses to a range of agonists that signal via G protein-coupled receptors. Thus, TLT2 is thought to play a critical role in regulating immune cell migration and trafficking, as well as activation. Studies pertaining to TLT2 are focused on delineation of the molecular mechanisms by which TLT2-mediated signaling affects the host response to fungal and bacterial pathogens, as well as its role in mediating acute inflammation.

Janusz H. Kabarowski, Ph.D.
Dr. Kabarowski’s research program is focused on the study of lipids and lipoprotein metabolism in chronic inflammatory disease (notably atherosclerosis and autoimmune disease). Early work characterized the role of the G2A lipid receptor in atherosclerosis and lipoprotein metabolism, showing that pro-atherogenic effects of this receptor may be mediated through its modulatory influence on hepatic High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) biogenesis. More recently, Dr. Kabarowski’s group described autoimmune-mediated effects on HDL metabolism in normolipidemic mouse models of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) and currently a major effort of his laboratory is directed toward developing therapeutic approaches by which anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties of HDL may be harnessed to improve major Lupus phenotypes and combat premature atherosclerosis, a major cause of morbidity and mortality in this and other rheumatic autoimmune diseases. Emphasis is placed on determining the mechanisms by which protective anti-inflammatory properties of HDL are subverted by chronic inflammation, understanding how this influences immunoregulatory processes involved in SLE and atherosclerosis, and establishing the therapeutic efficacy of HDL-targeted approaches such as HDL mimetic peptides in SLE and other autoimmune diseases.

John F. Kearney, Ph.D.
The overall research plans of the Kearney laboratory are aimed at discovering fundamental cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in the development of T and B lymphocytes.  Particular attention is focused on the factors involved in the establishment of a diverse B cell repertoire and the identification of novel B cell subsets and B cell progenitors. This basic research is then applied to immune responses to the pathogens and opportunistic pathogens (Bacillus anthracis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, groups A and B streptococci, Enterobacter cloacae, Aspergillus fumigatus) thus leading to studies on mechanisms of disease in mouse models.

 A major portion of the Kearney laboratory research addresses the “hygiene hypothesis” that links the increase in autoimmune and allergic phenomena including Type 1 diabetes and allergic asthma in humans to excessively sanitary conditions provided to our children early in life. These are significant public health problems worldwide, associated with an alarming decrease in the age of onset. A particular focus is on the role of antibodies to these organisms with the potential to dampen allergic and autoimmune diseases.

The objective of our work on autoimmune diabetes is based on the observations that (i) childhood infection with Group A strepococci that causes Scarlet fever has a negative impact on T1D development in humans and (ii) a similar effect is observed in rodent models. Antibodies are important in fighting infections but multiple studies now show that certain antibodies have housekeeping functions, in that they can clean up and dispose of dead or dying cells in our body. Our preliminary studies suggest that this novel approach will be effective in preventing the development of T1D by inducing long-term antibody production to self-antigens in beta islet cells without interfering with other immune functions. Our idea is that these antibodies will divert autoantigens into pathways that block or dampen the production of T lymphocytes with the potential to destroy insuIin-producing beta islet cells in the pancreas. Our goal is to develop a strategy that will provide a possible therapeutic or vaccination option for treatment or prevention of T1D. Antigen-based therapies to induce T cell tolerance use a single antigen whereas our approach has the potential to dampen autoimmunity against known or ignored determinants of beta cell secretory granules, and prevent spreading of anti-islet cell activity and inhibit late stage T1D.

Asthma is a potentially life threatening chronic respiratory disease, which is an increasingly significant public health problem worldwide. In the United States 16.4 million non-institutionalized adults and 7.0 million children currently have asthma, accounting for 7.3% and 9.4% of these total populations, respectively. The “hygiene hypothesis” links the increasing allergic airway diseases to lack of appropriate microbial exposure early in life. A single neonatal immunization of mice with a Group A streptococcal vaccine induces antibodies that are sustained well into adulthood and protect against airway allergic responses. Base on these findings we are investigating new therapeutic or vaccination options in mouse models of allergic airways disease for the prevention/treatment of allergic asthma.

Fungal infections involving opportunistic pathogens have increased dramatically in the last 20 yrs. due mainly to increased numbers of HIV patients, and severe immunosuppressive regimens involved in a variety of therapies such as bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy. The lack of effective vaccines and the emergence of strains resistant to effective anti-fungal agents have compounded the significance of this health problem that has a very high morbidity. We have shown that targeting antibodies to shared components of bacterial and fungal species elicit protective antibody responses to fungal infections in mice. Our ongoing studies on anti-fungal immunity revolve around identification of protective antibody to novel vaccine targets on Candida albicans and Aspergillus fumigatus.

Christopher A. Klug, Ph.D.
Our laboratory has had a longstanding interest in understanding the genetic control of hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) differentiation into the earliest committed lymphoid cells in the bone marrow. This process is mediated by a number of factors including transcription factors and growth factor signaling pathways that both promote lineage specification as well as repress differentiation into alternative blood cell fates. Differentiation of HSC is also coupled with maintenance of the stem cell state in a process called self-renewal, which effectively maintains homeostasis within the hematopoietic system throughout life. Some of our ongoing work has focused on the characterization of murine and human mesenchymal stem cells (MSC), which form part of the HSC niche, for their ability to promote HSC self-renewal. This work has implications for expansion of HSC in vitro and for promotion of graft facilitation during bone marrow transplantation.

Beatriz León Ruiz, Ph.D.
A major focus of my research is directed on unraveling the functions of dendritic cells in T helper type 2 (Th2)-driven immune responses. The Th2 immune response is critical in the host defense against parasitic infections, but it is also responsible for the pathogenesis of allergic disorders, such asthma. Our lab has found crucial roles for antigen presenting dendritic cells in Th2 differentiation. In recent work, we are unraveling the functional specialization of dendritic cells for the induction of Th2 responses against pathogens and allergens. The broad, long term goals of my research program are to develop effective therapies for the treatment of Th2-mediated diseases such as allergic disease.

Frances Lund, Ph.D.
The overarching research objective of the Lund laboratory is to identify the key players that suppress or exacerbate mucosal immune responses with the long-term goal of developing therapeutics to treat immunopathology associated with chronic infectious, allergic and autoimmune disease. To evaluate inflammation and cellular immune responses in vivo, we utilize different strains of mice that have genetically altered immune systems. In particular, we focus on evaluating mice that have alterations in the B lymphocyte compartment. We expose these mice to pathogens, allergens or autoantigens and then study the ensuing immune responses in lymphoid organs and in mucosal tissues like the lung and gut. We study immune responses in mice that spontaneously develop autoimmune diseases like Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) or Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).  We also examine inflammatory and immune responses in mice exposed to common allergens like house dust mite or infected with viral (influenza, RSV), bacterial (Streptococcus pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes), fungal (Pneumocystis carinii) or parasitic (Heligmosomoides polygyrus) pathogens. Finally, we expose mice to toxins like cigarette smoke and DNA-damaging chemotherapeutics and monitor chronic inflammation and tissue damage in sites such as the lung.

Jiri Mestecky, M.D., Ph.D
Our group has been involved for an extended time period in the studies of various aspects of mucosal immunology such as the polypeptide chain and glycan structures of secretory IgA antibodies, including the independent discovery of J chain. In parallel, cellular aspects of IgA biosynthesis, catabolism, and selective transepithelial transport have been investigated. We have demonstrated the cellular and tissue origins of various molecular forms of IgA (monomeric/polymeric of IgA1 and IgA2 subclasses)and determined tissue sites, cell types, and receptors involved in IgA binding and catabolism using various animal models and isolated cells. In collaboration with other members of the mucosal immunology group we studied the induction of humoral and cellular immune responses in mucosal sections and tissues and we provided direct evidence for the existence of the common mucosal immune system in humans. Various mucosal immunization routes, antigen delivery systems and adjuvants have been compared with respect to the magnitude, duration, and quality of immune responses induced at desired mucosal sites.

More recent studies have been focused on the impact and immune response induced by HIV infection or immunization with experimental vaccines. In parallel, studies of molecular defects and regulation of glycosylation of IgA1 isolated from sera of patients with the most common glomerulonephritis in the world – IgA nephropathy – led to the discovery of the molecular basis of this disease and characterization of nephritogenic immune complexes.

Suzanne Michalek, Ph.D.
We are interested in the mucosal and innate immune systems; the development of mucosal vaccines against microbial pathogens; cellular mechanisms engaged following microbial-host interaction, e.g., signaling pathways activated, that could lead to the development of immunotherapeutics.

Jan Novak, Ph.D.
Dr. Novak’s research interests in Immunology include glycoimmunobiology and glycoimmunopathology as they relate to structure and function of antibodies and other glycoproteins in health and disease and possible interventional approaches for treatment of diseases. Major topics are related to renal diseases and autoimmune diseases (IgA nephropathy and other chronic diseases of the kidney), cancer, and mucosal infections, including sexually transmitted diseases, such as those caused by HIV.

Hubert Tse, Ph.D.
The overall research objective in the Tse laboratory is to define and prevent immune-mediated effector mechanisms involved in the destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic beta-cells in autoimmune Type 1 diabetes (T1D). An overarching theme in our research is to determine the involvement of oxidative stress and the generation of reactive oxygen (ROS) species as effector and signaling molecules in autoimmune responses and other pro-inflammatory-mediated diseases (Collagen-Induced Arthritis (CIA), Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis (EAE), Spinal Cord Injury, Traumatic Brain Injury). Research from our lab and others has shown that efficient T cell activation requires three signals mediated by antigen-presenting cell and naïve T cell interactions: signal 1 (T cell receptor – MHC), signal 2 (co-stimulatory molecules), and signal 3 (ROS and pro-inflammatory cytokines). To corroborate the importance of ROS-dependent signaling (signal 3) in T1D, a dominant negative p47phox (Ncf1m1J) mutation of the NADPH oxidase complex was introgressed into the non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse, a murine model for studying Type 1 diabetes. NOD.Ncf1m1J mice are impaired in ROS synthesis and highly resistant to spontaneous diabetes and adoptive transfer of diabetes with diabetogenic T cells. CD4+ and CD8+ T cells are the final effector cells involved in pancreatic beta-cell destruction. Pro-inflammatory macrophages are equally important, as they constitute the first immune cells recruited into pancreatic islets to initiate beta-cell destruction and to activate naïve diabetogenic T cells. Currently, we seek to understand the synergy of oxidative stress and ROS synthesis on the activation of innate immune cells to diabetogenic viral triggers (Coxsackie B4, Encephalomyocarditis virus) and autoreactive T cells in Type 1 diabetes.

Mark R. Walter, Ph.D.
Role of Interferons and other cytokines in Lupus:  The type I interferon family (IFNs) consists of 15 different molecules that have diverse functions such as activating cells to control viral infections.  However, the IFNs also play a pathogenic role in an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).  The IFNs have been implicated in the initiation and worsening of the disease, most notably in kidney damage (lupus nephritis).  The Walter lab is designing molecular tools to measure IFN levels in the blood and kidneys of lupus patients.  The project is expanding to evaluate how other cytokine pathways intersect with the IFNs in disease progression.  The results of these studies may be used to monitor disease and/or choose the appropriate therapy to improve patient health.  This is a collaborative project between clinicians and biochemists motivated to understand how to prevent and/or manage the devastating impact of lupus on people’s lives. 

Design of novel vaccines against human cytomegalovirus (HCMV):  Current viral vaccines elicit antibodies to viral proteins that prevent or limit entry of virus into cells of their host.  To date, this strategy has not been successful in a number of viruses, including HCMV, that directly target immune cell signaling pathways to evade host immune responses.  HCMV infection can cause severe hearing loss, mental disabilities, and even death in a developing fetus (For more information see this link).  Currently there is no vaccine for HCMV.  To address this problem, we are using our expertise in cytokine structural biology to design novel antigens that target virally produced cytokines.  To date, these antigens show efficacy in animal models of HCMV.   Further testing of this strategy and evaluating molecules for possible clinical trials are now underway.  See

1.  Logsdon et al.  Design and Analysis of Rhesus Cytomegalovirus IL-10 Mutants as a Model for Novel Vaccines against Human Cytomegalovirus. PLoS One. 6 (2011).

2.  Eberhardt et al. Host Immune Responses to a Viral Immune Modulating Protein: Immunogenicity of Viral Interleukin-10 in Rhesus Cytomegalovirus-Infected Rhesus Macaques. PLoSOne 7 (2012).