5 Questions with an Immunologist
Why do you work on untangling how infection and inflammation affect immune system function and neurodevelopment?
We’ve made great progress in treating cancer and infectious diseases, but not in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases. We need transformative techniques to develop treatments; I believe the immune system can help us achieve this. I think our immune system has evolved to stabilize or restore homeostatic balance when things go awry. It interacts with many organ systems. It can, for example, receive and process signals from the gut microbiota and affect the function of the nervous system. I anticipate that ten years from now “neuroimmunotherapy” will be used to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even autism spectrum disorder.
What sparked your interest in this line of research?
Two things: a class I took as a PhD student and luck. One of my professors told us about research showing that pregnant women who get hospitalized with infections are more likely to give birth to children with autism. That made no sense at the time, but I remembered it. Later, I found a paper describing this phenomenon in pregnant mice, but it identified a signaling pathway and showed that cytokine IL-6 plays a role. I was then studying a class of IL-6-dependent T cells. I wanted to test the hypothesis that sociability deficits in offspring were related to the immune cells I was studying, but to do that I needed a neurobiologist to measure mouse behavior. And this is where good fortune entered: I married a woman who was doing postdoctoral work in neurobiology. It was a marriage of two fields before neuroimmunology was even a thing.
What do you hope to achieve as co-lead of the Fairbairn Family Lyme Disease Research Initiative?
My co-lead, Isaac Chiu, and I are trying to understand the neuroimmune connection in Lyme disease—why and how an infection with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease can lead to lingering long-term neurologic symptoms in some people. Without a clear mechanistic understanding of this process, we cannot design treatments. Our first step toward discovering such a mechanism is creating a good animal model.
What great challenge do scientists face today?
Funding. I have so many ideas I’d like to pursue. I’d love to do ten different experiments tomorrow, any of which could be potentially transformative. The funding challenge leads us to cast aside some exciting ideas. It’s what keeps me up at night.
What or who inspires you?
I had a chance to present our data to parents of children with autism. Although our work is based on preclinical mouse models, these young mothers and fathers—some of whom had brought their children along—were so attentive and so focused on our work. I hope we can help them and, hopefully, within my lifetime. That humbles—and motivates—me.
I have also been inspired by my best friend, who recently passed away from ALS. I am an immunologist at HMS, and I felt so helpless. The death led me to start work with ALS mouse models. Perhaps my lab will one day help us understand the causes and mechanisms of the disease.
Ekaterina Pesheva is director of science communications and media relations in the Office of Communications and External Relations at HMS.
Image: John Soares