The Michelson Medical Research Foundation and the Human Immunome Project awarded the 2021 Michelson Prizes: Next Generation Grants to Dr. Camila Consiglio of Karolinska Institutet, Dr. Rong Ma of Emory University, and Dr. Nicholas Wu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during a recent virtual ceremony hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett.
By Justin Chapman
“Five things are needed to do great science: intellect, knowledge, imagination, courage, and perseverance,” Dr. Gary K. Michelson said as he kicked off the awards ceremony for the 2021 Michelson Prizes: Next Generation Grants, which award $150,000 annually to investigators 35 or younger who are advancing the study of human immunology, vaccine discovery, and immunotherapy.
The Michelson Medical Research Foundation and the Human Immunome Project awarded the prizes to Dr. Camila Consiglio of Karolinska Institutet, Dr. Rong Ma of Emory University, and Dr. Nicholas Wu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Watch the full ceremony below.
“This type of research either pushes past the known limits or attempts to disprove the orthodoxy of the moment,” Michelson continued. “There’s a substantial likelihood that it will not succeed, but not succeeding is not the same as failing, unless that is where you stop. I see these qualities not exclusively in young people, but very much in our young scientists. These young researcher prizes have succeeded beyond my expectation.”
Renowned science journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Laurie Garrett MC’d the ceremony.
“It’s very hard for a young scientist to break through all those barriers and get their share of the pie to do their research, because it’s so dominated by and heavily skewed towards firmly established, tenured researchers at major research institutions,” she said. “The Michelson Prize gives you a little nudge, just a little edge to get you closer to those much older and more established scientists so that you’re on a grant pathway that will carry you through to your professional career and allow you to build your own laboratory and move into this space on a permanent level.”
Dr. Ma’s research focus has been at the intersection of DNA nanotechnology and immunology, specifically novel mechanotechnology, which measures and interprets the mechanical forces involved in the human immune system. Her work will help generate personalized neoantigen cancer vaccines.
Dr. Wu’s research sits at the convergence of high-throughput biology, molecular biology, structural immunology, and bioinformatics and has the potential to significantly advance vaccine and therapeutic design.
Dr. Consiglio is looking at how testosterone impacts the human immune system and she’s working with a cohort of individuals in Sweden who are undergoing sex change transformation. She has taken baseline measurements of their immune systems before receiving sex hormone treatment and is studying them over the course of one year to understand the short- and long-term effects of hormone treatment.
“Five things are needed to do great science: intellect, knowledge, imagination, courage, and perseverance.”
—Dr. Gary K. Michelson
In a first for Michelson Prize ceremonies, the honorees asked questions of each other. Doctors Ma and Wu were especially interested in learning about Dr. Consiglio’s work on the gender differences in immune responses.
Dr. Ma pointed to data that her lab collected a few years ago that suggested the gender differences were due to non-gender specific cells, that the actual structure of the cells might be different based on which hormones are circulating.
“The most exciting part about being one of the winners here is you get to meet people who are doing such awesome science in a completely unrelated field, and yet we find a connection,” Dr. Consiglio said.
Dr. Wu considered that much of the existing immunology research might be flawed because it has failed to account for the gender of the individual animal or human from which the studied cells came. Dr. Consiglio pointed out that it wasn’t until 2015 or 2016 that researchers had to identify which biological gender they were studying in order to apply for NIH grants.
“We need to keep taking into account that these biological factors matter and really take this into consideration for our studies, for our conclusions, and for next directions,” Dr. Consiglio said.
Dr. Wayne Koff, chair of the Human Vaccines Project, said that the Michelson Prizes have helped advance the careers of each of the other eight previous winners of the prizes over the past four years.
“We’ve seen this across the board for all the winners, and I expect we’re going to see the same for Nicholas and Rong and Camila,” he said. “We are so proud of all of you.”
Garrett introduced and interviewed each of the prize recipients about their research projects.
“The most exciting part about being one of the winners here is you get to meet people who are doing such awesome science in a completely unrelated field, and yet we find a connection.”
—Dr. Camila Consiglio
“Curiosity has always been one of the biggest motivations that pushes me forward in my research,” Dr. Ma said. “As an early career researcher, the support from the Michelson Prize will give me a lot of independence, as well as the peace of mind to focus solely on this research. It allows me to pursue the high-risk/high-reward project of developing a novel assay for new antigen and new antigen specific T cell identification.”
Dr. Consiglio is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow in Petter Brodin’s Lab in the Women and Children’s Department of the Karolinska Institutet. She investigates the mechanisms underlying sex hormone-specific regulation of human immunity by using innovative systems-level approaches to analyze changes in blood immune cells from subjects at multiple timepoints before and after initiation of sex reassignment therapy with sex hormones.
Her research will offer important insights on the sex-differences in immune responses to infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and help optimize vaccine strategies and immunomodulatory therapies.
“I chose to become a scientist because I’ve always been very curious to understand the world around me,” she said. “My research is trying to understand how the immune system is different between men and women. We know that men tend to have more severe infections when compared to females, but on the flip side, women tend to have higher responses to vaccinations.
“Why is this? By trying to understand the impacts of testosterone in immunity, we can better understand how to prevent and treat infectious diseases and design optimal vaccine strategies that can fit one biological sex. I’m really excited that the Michelson Prize will allow me to pursue this and take the next leap.”
Dr. Wu’s research is trying to interpret complex human antibody repertoire, the whole range of antibodies that may be involved in responding to a specific epitope. He studies the evolution of antigens and antibodies, which are the attackers and defenders of the immune system. He is developing a way to systematically identify the targets of hundreds of thousands of antibodies and their binding ability in a single experiment. His research attempts to establish a sequence-based approach for epitope prediction using influenza A hemagglutinin as a proof-of-concept.
Dr. Wu will develop a high-throughput platform for screening antibody-antigen interactions and then use the platform to identify the epitope for each antibody and determine sequence features to enable epitope prediction.
“My major research direction is to understand the molecular interaction between antibodies and viruses,” he said. “The research outcome will not only advance the fundamental understanding of immunology, but also facilitate the development of next generation vaccines. I really enjoy exploring novel ideas to push the boundary of knowledge. I also want to have a positive impact on society. And being a scientist allows me to do both. With the recognition of the Michelson Prize, I feel more comfortable to explore high-risk/high-reward projects, both intellectually and financially.”
“With the recognition of the Michelson Prize, I feel more comfortable to explore high-risk/high-reward projects, both intellectually and financially.”
—Dr. Nicholas Wu
Garrett, who won the Pulitzer in 1996 for her work about the Ebola virus outbreak in present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been a leading voice explaining COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Before interviewing the three recipients, Garrett provided an update on what scientists have learned about Long COVID, in which infected people experience symptoms for months.
“We hope that the kinds of very innovative tools that have been applied by our winners of this year’s Michelson Prizes will also be brought to bear in understanding and dealing with the future of these cognitive disorders and the tremendous possibility—horrible as it may be given the circumstances—that improving our understanding of these disorders could actually lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of how the brain ages, how dementia occurs, perhaps Parkinson’s and other disorders, and whether or not they can be treated through immunological means,” she said.
Dr. Michelson wrapped up the ceremony by congratulating the 2021 Michelson Prizes recipients.
“If the past is prelude,” he said, “then the three of you should really buckle up for what’s going to be a fabulous ride.”
Read more about the work of Dr. Camila Consiglio, Dr. Rong Ma, and Dr. Nicholas Wu. Learn more about the Michelson Prizes: Next Generation Grants and read the original announcement of the 2021 Michelson Prize recipients here. The application for the next round of prizes opens April 1 and closes June 24.