Professor Susan Kaech elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Kaech, director of the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She shares the honor with some of the world’s most accomplished leaders from science and technology, business, public affairs, education, the humanities, and the arts. Kaech and the new class of nearly 270 members will be inducted at a formal ceremony on September 30, 2023, at the Academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kaech, who holds the NOMIS Chair, is an immunologist who has contributed significantly to the understanding of how long-term immunity forms. Specifically, she helped establish the modern understanding of how and when memory T cells form. Memory T cells are critical for maintaining long-term immunity during acute and chronic infections and can be suppressed in cancer. Kaech identified several genes and signaling molecules critical for memory T cell generation during immune responses. She also helped establish the field of cancer immunometabolism by discovering that the metabolic interplay between tumor and immune cells, as well as changes in nutrient availability, can lead to metabolic immune suppression in tumors. Her findings have solidified the framework for understanding how memory T cells form during infection and may lead to new therapeutic interventions for cancer in the future.

Kaech is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received numerous awards, including a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist award, the National Institutes of Health Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biosciences, and the Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Fellowship, among others. She was also recently elected to the American Association of Immunologists Council, which serves as the largest and most influential organization to advance the knowledge of immunology and medical research in the country.

Leading through innovation and collaboration

Launched in 2006 from the forward-thinking minds of then-Board Chair Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, Salk’s Innovation Grants are a vital program to continue supporting emerging science. The grants are designed to fund out-of-the-box ideas that hold significant promise but do not yet have the track record to gain support from more traditional funding sources.

The Collaboration Grant Program was launched in 2019 to foster new collaborative efforts between Salk scientists. Inspired by the success of the Innovation Grant Program, these awards support team-science approaches to tackling important challenges, laying the foundation for large research grants involving multiple Salk labs.

2023 Innovation Grant

To better understand the connections among chromatin modifications, genome organization, and gene regulation in plants, Associate Professor Julie Law and Assistant Professor Jesse Dixon will use a genomic analysis technique called Hi-C to explore how genetically altered chromatin states impact genome organization.

2023 Collaboration Grant

Professor Christian Metallo, Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle, and Salk Fellow Talmo Pereira will build AI-based models to relate changes in mouse behavior and diet to pancreatic cancer progression and whole-body physiology. Their findings will further AI application in cancer treatment while improving our scientific understanding of diet and chemotherapy, which are key factors important to all cancer patients.

Kavli Small Equipment Grants

Seven Salk faculty members received 2023 Kavli Small Equipment Grants, which provide funds to buy or build small equipment designed to strengthen research capacity and capability. The grant has a total funding amount of $200,000, and awards range from a minimum of $10,000 up to $100,000. This year, the research area focus was labs working on neuroscience, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cancer research.

The three funded projects are:

The development and characterization of sonogenetic tools (the use of ultrasound to manipulate cells)

A collaboration between Professors Joanne Chory, Sreekanth Chalasani, and Satchin Panda

Efficient delivery of nucleic acids and proteins into cells using a pulse of electricity

A collaboration between Associate Professor Graham McVicker and Professors Susan Kaech and Marc Montminy

Uncovering deep spinal and brain circuit dynamics with advanced imaging techniques

Associate Professor Axel Nimmerjahn

Salk promotes five faculty members in genetics, structural biology, immunobiology, and neuroscience

These five faculty members have demonstrated leadership in their disciplines, pushing the boundaries of basic scientific research. Assistant Professors Sung Han, Dmitry Lyumkis, and Graham McVicker were promoted to associate professors, and Associate Professors Sreekanth “Shrek” Chalasani and Ye Zheng were promoted to professors. The promotions were based on Salk faculty and nonresident fellow recommendations and approved by Salk’s president and Board of Trustees on April 21, 2023.

Dmitry Lyumkis, holder of the Hearst Foundation Developmental Chair, investigates the mechanisms by which biological invaders (pathogens), like viruses, interplay with their hosts to establish and maintain infection. His lab uses multidisciplinary biophysical techniques centered on cryo-electron microscopy to understand how viral and host proteins assemble, interact, and produce diverse functional outcomes. Understanding the form and function of proteins helps unravel the complex roles they play in viral infections and in human diseases, such as cancer, and informs therapeutic strategies to target those diseases. He recently determined the molecular structure of HIV Pol, a protein that plays a key role in the late stages of HIV replication when the virus begins spreading throughout the body.

Sung Han, holder of the Pioneer Fund Developmental Chair, works to understand how the brain recognizes environmental threats and sends signals that change physiology, metabolism, behavior, and emotion to avoid those threats. When this threat signaling pathway goes awry, it can create hypersensitivity, a characteristic of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as other panic and anxiety disorders. He recently uncovered a molecular pathway that initiates a fear response and described the connection between feelings of fear and breathing rhythm. Han also works to understand the science behind overdoses, which led to his discovery of a group of neurons that play a key role in the disrupted breathing that is often characteristic of overdose deaths.

Graham McVicker, holder of the Frederick B. Rentschler Developmental Chair, studies how human genetic differences, known as genetic variants, affect traits and diseases. In the past decade, thousands of genetic variants have been associated with human diseases. However, the function of most of these variants is unknown and difficult to determine, since they are often in what are called “noncoding” portions of the human genome. Noncoding regions do not provide instructions for making proteins that enable cell function. Instead, research suggests they influence when and where (under which conditions and in which cell types) specific proteins are made by the “coding” portions of the genome. McVicker uses CRISPR and computational analysis to understand the function of each genetic variant in every cell type, with a particular focus on understanding cancer and diseases related to the immune system. His long-term goal is to reveal novel disease mechanisms that could support the development of personalized therapies. He was recently awarded a Curebound Discovery Grant and a Genomic Innovator Award.

Sreekanth Chalasani studies how animals make complex strategic decisions, such as balancing the quest for food with territorial defense and predator avoidance. His work has revealed the brain circuits that underlie these complex decisions. He also uses worm and mouse models to pinpoint the differences between healthy and dysfunctional brains, make inferences about the human brain, and to shed light on conditions like autism spectrum disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. He recently discovered how hunger signals in the gut communicate with the brain, and identified the cells and connections in the brain that facilitate decision-making. Additionally, he engineered mammalian cells to be activated by sonogenetics, paving the way for other noninvasive versions of deep brain stimulation, pacemakers, and insulin pumps.

Ye Zheng studies the immune system dysfunction that causes inflammation and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and asthma. Zheng focuses on regulatory T cells, which control immune responses and whose dysfunction has been linked to multiple autoimmune diseases. By looking at the genes that control regulatory T cells, he hopes to find new ways to manage T cell dysfunction and inspire future therapeutics. Recently, Zheng found a new target for alopecia treatment by discovering that regulatory T cells communicate with hair follicles to enable hair regeneration. Additionally, when looking at allergic skin inflammation in mice, he found that obesity changes the molecular underpinnings of allergic reactions—a finding that may have implications for allergies in humans too.

Professor Christian Metallo honored with Daniel and Martina Lewis Chair

Professor Christian Metallo has been recognized for his outstanding contributions to advancing science by being named the next holder of the Daniel and Martina Lewis Chair. Professor Geoffrey Wahl previously held this chair position.

Metallo, who is part of Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, studies metabolism—how the constant breakdown of energy within cells works and, importantly, doesn’t work. By carefully studying healthy metabolic pathways, disease-causing pathways become clear, such as those that drive cancer progression and vision loss. His research advances the field of metabolism and provides a foundation for the development of metabolism-related therapeutics. Most recently, Metallo discovered that altered amino acid metabolism significantly contributes to peripheral neuropathy, a condition that is common in people with diabetes. The discovery opens new possibilities for identifying people most at risk for the condition, as well as potential treatment options.

Salk Institute launches collaboration with Autobahn Labs to accelerate drug discovery

The partnership will also seek to advance promising initial scientific discoveries through the preliminary steps of drug discovery and development. Autobahn Labs will invest up to $5 million per project for Salk discoveries that require access to drug development expertise and state-of-the-art capabilities.

“The strategic and operational support provided by Autobahn Labs will allow us to move forward at an accelerated pace to translate scientific discoveries into new therapeutics,” says Salk President Gerald Joyce. “The beauty of this collaboration is that the most promising findings across different areas of research at Salk will have the opportunity to move from the bench to the development of clinical drug candidates. We hope that this collaboration will lead to new therapeutic options for many areas of unmet medical need.”

Autobahn Labs invests earlier than traditional venture financing models, providing intellectual, financial, and physical capital to advance new scientific discoveries, from novel concept to preclinical drug candidate, with the goal of creating companies foundationally enabled by Salk science. As an added benefit, Salk trainees will have opportunities to learn about the processes of drug discovery, development, and commercialization.

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