Two graduate students conducting research at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech have received prestigious 2017 American Association of Immunologists (AAI) Careers in Immunology Fellowships.

Qinghui Mu of Shandong Province, China, is a Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences Ph.D. student in the laboratory of Xin Luo, assistant professor of immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. Veronica Ringel-Scaia of Columbus, Ohio, is a Translational Biology Medicine and Health (TBMH) doctoral student in Virginia Tech's Graduate School, and works with Irving Coy Allen, assistant professor of inflammatory disease in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

The fellowship is designed to support the career development of young scientists by providing one year of salary support and is awarded based on proposed project merit, candidate potential, and training environment quality. Only 45 fellowships are awarded nationally each year.

As part of the fellowship, Mu is studying whether and how maternal microbiota educates the neonatal antibody response, one of three current projects. During his initial research, Mu discovered a surprising phenomenon that antibody synthesis in mouse pups could be simulated by the milk of immunodeficient dams. Further investigation singled out a single bacterium in the milk microbiome as the cause, and the next step is to test the bacterium in germ-free pups. The research has potential human research implications as well.

“If we can find out what is actually causing the stimulation of antibodies in the pups, what’s special about the breast milk from the moms without an immune system, then we can potentially engineer some formula, for example… and hopefully that will be able to stimulate the antibody response in infants,” explained Luo, Mu’s advisor. Mu, who is first author on two papers published in Frontiers in Immunology and has two more in revision in Scientific Reports and Microbiome, hopes to continue in academia after he graduates next year.

Meanwhile, Ringel-Scaia’s research will significantly expand upon previous work conducted in the Allen lab.

“My research focuses on pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) and inflammatory disease and cancer,” she said. “I am particularly interested in the influence of the microbiome on the development of inflammation in the gut and colitis associated cancer. We have several strains of PRR-deficient mice and have found they are more cancer-prone. Additionally, we have found that these mice lacking specific PRRs have a significant increase in pathogenic bacteria present in their gut microbiome, and we think this could be contributing to their development of colitis associated cancer.”

Her work also has potential significance for human cancer screening and treatment, and the AAI fellowship will allow her to “delve deeper” into this research area. When she graduates, Ringel-Scaia hopes to “stay working with cancer and immunology” in industry, she explained.

In 2016, Michael Powell of Gaithersburg, Maryland, a TBMH student, also received the one-year AAI fellowship to study T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell that circulates through the body to identify and clear away foreign invaders or eradicate cancer cells. Powell studies gene regulation and other factors important to immunity response, such as immune memory and antibody production, in the lab of Kenneth Oestreich, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

“If we can understand how to manipulate the immune system to engage pathogens or cancerous cells, or suppress the immune system when the body’s natural defenses become harmful, we can make progress to solve medical problems,” said Powell, who is in the TBMH program’s Immunity and Infectious Disease focus area. “The AAI fellowship definitely provided me a lot of resources to conduct this research. We currently have a manuscript in review with a scientific journal that will describe what we’ve accomplished.”

Immunology — an essential pillar of the biomedical sciences that seeks to define the role of the immune system in states of both health and disease — is a rising area of research at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The immunologists, who specialize in innate immunity, adaptive immunity, autoimmune diseases, and host-microbe interactions, all conduct very complimentary research, which allows for numerous collaboration opportunities, explained Allen. “We each have a very specific contribution we can give to the other,” he said, adding that the AAI fellowships show increasing national and international recognition for their work.

Together, Allen, Luo, and Oestreich have published 21 publications in the last year alone, including articles in Nature Communications, Oncotarget, and the Journal of Immunology. They have also been principal investigators or co-investigators on grants totaling approximately $1.5 million in 2016 and 2017. In addition, students in the group have received travel awards to attend six international conferences and have won several awards at local, national, and international meetings.

Written by Kelsey Foster, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in communication from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. John Pastor, director of communications at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, contributed to this article.

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