From equine research to cancer vaccines
When Jessica Flechtner started her graduate work in the lab of Dr. Douglas Antczak, she wasn’t interested in a Ph.D., she just wanted to make her veterinary school application
more competitive. She was already a technician there, and had even cared for the research herd as an undergraduate at Cornell. But her research project, trying to find out why the immune system of female horses don’t attack their fetuses during pregnancy, soon became too engrossing to stop. She completed her doctorate and embarked on a research career focused on finding novel ways to use vaccines to educate T cells to treat disease.
“I had so much fun at the institute. It was such a family environment,” said Flechtner.
With Antczak’s wise advice to broaden her training beyond horses, she started a research fellowship at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, doing basic research on T cells. After meeting patients in the shared cafeteria, she realized that working in industry would be the best way to help people battling cancer.
Now, after working at three different biotech companies, Flechtner is Chief Scientific Officer at Genocea Biosciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With her foundation in immunology from the Antczak lab, she is leading the development of personalized cancer vaccines. Genocea’s most advanced product is already in early clinical trials. “With this technology, we can educate the patient’s own immune system to fight their tumors,” said Flechtner. “This is truly personalized medicine.”
Disease ecology, the Alaska-Baker connection
Dr. Karsten Hueffer’s favorite memories of the Baker Institute include coffee breaks and lunchtime seminars. These two activities perfectly exemplify the atmosphere at the
Institute – informal and collegial, yet scientifically rigorous.
“Baker was really a great place to be a grad student,” said Hueffer, associate dean of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “The culture there really pushed me to do the best I could.”
Hueffer came to the Baker Institute as a participant in the Leadership Program in 1998, but after learning about Dr. Colin Parrish’s work with parvovirus, started his PhD a year later. He studied the structure of parvovirus, how it infects cells in dogs, and how specific genetic mutations allowed it to expand its host range.
Currently, Hueffer studies the disease ecology of rabies virus. He is investigating why some regions of Alaska have naturally high rates of rabies, while others do not. His group also discovered the receptor in the brain that rabies targets to instill aggression and a lack of fear.
Recently, Hueffer has taken on more administrative roles and mentors students through a biomedical research program that engages indigenous students from remote areas. Hueffer finds it extremely satisfying to see his students succeed after graduation. In fact, one of his former undergraduate students, Karen Barnard, is now working on her PhD in his old lab at the Baker Institute.
Young scientist advances career in virology
As a graduate student in the Parrish laboratory, Heather Callaway, PhD '18 studied how the structure of parvoviruses, best known for causing a deadly infection in dogs, have changed and evolved over thousands, or even millions of years. “I was trying to see what ancient parvoviruses looked like, how they behaved, and if they could still enter modern-day cells,” said Callaway.
Now, as a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, Callaway uses these tools to determine the structure of glycoproteins from rabies virus. She aims to stay in academia so that she can continue studying the structure and function of viruses, or possibly even their use in gene therapy to cure genetic diseases. She’s been fascinated with the idea of using viruses as a delivery system for DNA since she first learned about viruses that inject their DNA into bacterial cells back in high school.
“I still have an interest in gene therapy today, and as I continue to learn about viruses, the list of things I want to learn about them keeps growing,” said Callaway.