Virus researchers Cohn and Blanco-Melo win coveted grants

Pew and Searle scholar programs each give a boost to accomplished, early-career scientists
Dr. Daniel Blanco-Melo give a talk
Dr. Daniel Blanco-Melo, recipient of a Searle Scholar's Program grant, leads a team discussion of viruses at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Having grown up in Seattle, Lillian Cohn, PhD, remembers often riding in her parents’ car, passing the lighted windows of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center close to home, watching scientists working inside their labs.

Now, she has a laboratory of her own. This month, she celebrates her second year as an assistant professor at Fred Hutch, having built a strong resume as an immunologist at The Rockefeller University in New York, and at the University of California, San Francisco. Cohn and her team are looking for ways to cure HIV/AIDS by eradicating reservoirs of latently infected blood cells that persist despite continuous therapy with antiviral drugs.

Today, she has some more to celebrate. Cohn was named by the Pew Charitable Trusts as one of 22 members of this year’s class of biomedical scholars, a prestigious program that includes an award of $300,000 to support her research over the next four years.

Across the street from Cohn’s lab on the Fred Hutch campus, Daniel Blanco-Melo, PhD,  is also celebrating.

He is about to begin his first year as one of 15 new Searle scholars, a similarly sought-after honor supported by the Searle Funds, at the Chicago Community Trust. The honor includes a $300,000 grant, paid over the next three years, to support his research exploring how viruses evolve, and how the human immune response to them changes over time.

A native of the 500-year-old Mexican city of Puebla, Blanco-Melo also came to Fred Hutch in 2021; and like Cohn, is an assistant professor in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division.

Blanco-Melo and Cohn are the latest Fred Hutch scientists to benefit from these highly competitive grant programs, which give a financial boost to promising, early-career scientists. Each provides money to support research of the recipient’s own choosing, and also introduces them to networks of peers who also received grants from the respective programs.

“These kinds of awards are special, because they come with funding that is quite flexible,” Cohn said. “That allows you to do experiments that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. It allows for the lab to pursue a new direction or to start a project that would otherwise be too risky to fund.”

With four years of support available, Cohn said it is too early to commit to any particular avenue of inquiry. “We’ve always tried to go where the data takes us,” she said.

Cohn credits her mentors, immunologist Michael Nussensweig, MD, PhD, of The Rockefeller University in New York, and clinical investigator Steven Deeks, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco, for inspiring her efforts to solve the HIV latency problem.

In the course of studying why HIV persists in memory T-cells, she found that these clones of infected white blood cells — identical cells duplicated from an original — will sometimes expand their numbers in response to infection by other viruses. It could be a clue as to why they can persist for a lifetime.

She also notes that latent HIV infection “is similar to metastatic cancer,” in its ability to spread by this “clonal expansion,” or proliferation, of the diseased cells in question. She is considering using her Pew grant to further explore that phenomenon.

photo of Dr. Lillian Cohn
Fred Hutch immunologist Dr. Lillian Cohn discusses her research on HIV latency at a Fred Hutch faculty retreat in 2022. Photo by Connor O'Shaughnessy / Fred Hutch News Service

Pew awards are highly coveted, and since 1987 ten other Fred Hutch scientists have received grants from the Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Sciences. Structural biologist Melody Campbell, PhD, last year was awarded the grant, a recognition of her pathbreaking research in cryo-electron microscopy.

Searle scholar grant recipient Blanco-Melo came to Fred Hutch after having used modern genetic techniques to probe bits of ancient viruses locked inside modern genomes. At the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, he pieced together the evolution of a virus that infected primates 30 million years ago, and he also carried out important studies of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

At Fred Hutch, he will likely use his Searle Scholar’s Program grant to support research into the evolution of viruses that infected Europeans in the mid-1700s to mid-1800’s, when nations were rapidly changing from agrarian to industrialized economies.

“We are sampling tissue specimens in museum collections in the U.K. around the time of the Industrial Revolution, where there were quite a lot of diseases going around there,” Blanco-Melo said. “The idea is to see if we can extract nucleic acids (genetic material) from these specimens and read the genomes of viruses that would have been circulating in those times.”

The work will involve taking biopsies of tissues carefully preserved by pathologist of that era. The specimens are kept in several museums including the Hunterian Museum, in Glasgow; Surgeons’ Hall Museums, at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; and at the Gordon Museum of Pathology, in London.

The goal will be to track, as we are able to do with contemporary viruses, the evolution of viruses from that period to the present day. Blanco-Melo and his colleagues will study how the viruses changed in response to the defenses put up by the human immune system, providing genetic snapshots that document the continuous confrontation between microbes and their human hosts.

“We are just figuring out what those genes were, and what they did,” he said. “Understanding what happened in the past can give us lessons in what to expect for future viral outbreaks.”

Blanco-Melo said he is honored to be selected to a program that had previously given a boost to the early careers of several other Hutch faculty members. They are Philip Bradley, PhD, Searle Scholar class of 2009, who heads Fred Hutch’s Herbold Computational Biology Program; virus evolution experts Jesse Bloom, PhD (2012) and Harmit Malik, PhD (2005); and cancer researcher Toshiyasu Taniguchi, MD, PhD (2005), now a professor at Tokai University School of Medicine, near Tokyo.

Malik notes that the Pew and Searle grants are aimed at helping younger researchers at a time when research grants are critical but hard to come by. These programs also include meetings with other scholars from the respective programs, which can build lifelong friendships and collaborations.

“It got me up and running on a project about host/virus interactions that I had no prior funding on,” Malik said of his Searle scholar grant. “The networking opportunities with bright peers was an even bigger plus than the money and prestige — which were both nice, of course.”

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. 

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