2 Hutch postdocs named Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Breakthrough Scientists

Drs. Alistair Russell and Tera Levin among few Damon Runyon Fellows selected for further support
A composite image of Drs. Alistair Russell and Tera Levin
Drs. Alistair Russell and Tera Levin Photos by Robert Hood

Two Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center postdoctoral fellows have been named Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Breakthrough Scientists. Drs. Alistair Russell and Tera Levin first received funding from the Damon Runyon Foundation in 2015. Now, they’re among six fellows who merited further funding after they “greatly exceeded Damon Runyon’s highest expectations and are most likely to make paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that transform the way we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer,” according to the foundation’s press release.

Understanding influenza

Russell, a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Jesse Bloom, studies how our immune cells recognize influenza infection. Influenza sweeps across the world every year, but immune responses to various flu pandemics differ widely. Russell wants to understand why that is, starting at the level of single cells. Individual cells vary greatly in their ability to detect and respond to the virus, ranging from those that mount a strong antiviral response to those that don’t respond at all. He is working to understand this variation and how it influences the body’s reactions to different strains of flu. Russell’s work could improve vaccine design by pinpointing aspects of influenza variants that are particularly potent and more likely to prompt a protective immune response if incorporated into a vaccine.

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“My work centers around a fundamental question in understanding the progression of influenza disease: What determines whether our cells recognize an attack from influenza and begin mounting defenses, or fail and become infected?” Russell wrote in an email. “This award is a great boon as I transition to my own independent work, providing me with flexibility to pursue novel methodologies to answer this critical question.”

His mentor, Bloom, commended Russell’s scientific ingenuity.

"During his postdoc, Alistair has developed innovative new ways to probe how influenza virus is detected by the innate immune system. I'm delighted to see his excellent work recognized by the Dale Frey award," he wrote.

Tracing the interactions between host and pathogen

Levin, a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Harmit Malik, studies how pathogens interact with the cells that they infect, specifically the bacterium Legionella pneumophila and its amoeba hosts. L. pneumophila causes Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia, when it infects humans. It is particularly threatening to patients with compromised immune systems, including cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The bacteria’s host amoebae live in environmental water supplies, making air conditioners and fountains potential sources of L. pneumophila infection.

The evolutionary arms race between host and pathogen leaves genetic signatures in both the bacterium and amoebae that Levin uses to identify genes central to disease progression. Levin wants to understand how host defenses and mechanisms of pathogen virulence evolve. Her work could help reveal the bacterium’s vulnerabilities and possibly pinpoint ways to prevent human infection by L. pneumophila by, for example, blocking its ability to persist in amoebae.

“I'm really excited for this award, because it will give me a big head start when I get my lab up and running,” Levin wrote in an email. “My ultimate goals are to use the Legionella-amoeba pair as a great model system for how hosts and microbes co-evolve, by identifying and characterizing the molecular interfaces where evolutionary arms races occur. I want to see how adaptation in both host and microbe alters host-microbe interactions at the molecular level, and how it ultimately impacts the outcomes of infections.”

Levin’s mentor, Malik, commented on the novelty of her research: “Tera has forged an entirely new research program in my lab studying the interactions of Legionella with itself and its host amoebae, guided primarily by the premise of doing fundamentally important science,” he wrote in an email. “In most ways, she has acted as a junior PI [principal investigator], seeking out new collaborators in the field and mentoring two junior researchers. I am delighted that her independence and ambition is being recognized by this prestigious award. I look forward to her future discoveries.”

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

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