Graduate student researcher earns national award for study on COVID-19 vaccine candidate
Anna Hassebroek, a doctoral candidate in the Meng Lab of Molecular Virology and an anatomic pathology resident at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, is the 2023 recipient of the Boehringer Ingelheim Research Award for Graduate Veterinarians.
“This is a very prestigious national award recognizing Dr. Hassebroek's outstanding original research accomplishment for her Ph.D. dissertation research,” said X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology. “As a veterinary pathologist, Anna possesses not only extensive expertise in experimental and veterinary pathology but also the unique skills of a biomedical scientist and vaccinologist. She is a rising star in the field.”
Hassebroek received the award in August at the National Veterinary Scholars Symposium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she also presented her dissertation research. In a statement, Boehringer Ingelheim said the award “reinforces our mission to promote research in veterinary biosciences and reward those students who have excelled in their graduate or residency program.”
Hassebroek’s research focused on a vaccine platform that had proven effective against a pig coronavirus in an earlier collaborative work between Meng and Mike Zhang, professor of biological system engineering, and might be refined into a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in humans. The platform is a “noninfectious hepatitis B virus core antigen that can self-assemble into virus-like particles,” Meng said.
The COVID-19 vaccine induced an immune response in preliminary testing, Hassebroek said, but had limited success in protecting against infection.
“Anna's work has important implications for future development of other viral vaccines,” said Meng, also a professor of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Meng said Hassebroek’s study showed the vaccine platform did induce “antigen specific humoral and cell-mediated immune response” in mice models.
“The virus-like particle is an attractive platform and this project identified successful immune responses to the vaccine, as well as areas with potential for improvement in future vaccine studies,” Hassebroek said.
Hassebroek, a native of northwest Iowa, worked for a decade in biostatistics before returning to school to get a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Purdue University in 2019. She said the concept of One Health – the interlinking of human, animal, and environmental health – had always been attractive to her and is what ultimately drew her back for a DVM at Purdue and then her residency and pursuit of a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech.
Hassebroek expects to defend her dissertation later this fall and plans to remain in academia. “I hope to use the skills I’ve accumulated from each stage of my career to contribute to veterinary diagnostics and research,” Hassebroek said. “There is a long list of mentors that helped me get to where I am and I'm excited to repay that by participating in the training of future veterinarians and pathology residents.”