Building a Better Vaccine at immunologyLA

Shane Crotty, PhD

"I'm generally obsessed with vaccines," says Shane Crotty, PhD, a professor at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunity in La Jolla, California. And that's a good thing. His obsession has elevated Crotty to international renown and honors, including the keynote speaker slot at the June 3 immunologyLA conference.

The annual event, co-sponsored by Cedars-Sinai, drew more than 140 Southern California scientists to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to exchange ideas and present the latest findings in immunology. More than 40 research posters were displayed, and awards were bestowed on the best oral presentations and posters.

In his speech, Crotty, director of the Division of Vaccine Discovery at the La Jolla institute, discussed his drive for "better, rational vaccine design" to combat infectious diseases. This effort requires in-depth knowledge of the immune system. Crotty's specialty is the T follicular helper cell (Tfh). These cells help the immune system's B cells produce antibodies to defend the body against harmful bacteria and viruses.

Crotty wants to know what makes Tfh cells grow and thrive. About six years ago, along with other researchers, he determined that a gene known as BCL6 regulates the development of Tfh cells. But how?

For the answer, he and his team searched for sites in the genome of Tfh cells where the BCL6 protein binds. "We hoped to find about 50 relevant sites," he said. Instead, to their surprise, they found more than 8,500 such sites. The gene was more important that they had thought. "BCL6 is deeply ingrained in the Tfh biology," Crotty said. "If you lose BCL6, you lose all the Tfh cells."

So far, researchers have found that BCL6 interacts with at least 16 proteins that allow it to act in Tfh cells. Although much remains to be learned about the process, Crotty said preliminary findings have yielded practical information. "Just by knowing that the Tfh cells exist, we can see the problem in some vaccines that have a poor Tfh response," he said in an interview.

After Crotty spoke, Young Investigator Awards were presented. The awards for best oral presentation went to Heather Clark, a graduate student at University of California, Irvine (UCI) and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland; and Siobhán Smith, PhD, a visiting postdoctoral scientist at Cedars-Sinai from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The awards for best poster went to Arathi Lakhole, MD, a postdoctoral fellow at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and University of Southern California (USC); Chairut Vareechon, a graduate student at UCI and Case Western Reserve University; and Bowen Wang, a graduate student at USC.

The awards and Crotty's keynote talk were sponsored by the American Association of Immunologists. The conference co-sponsors were the Cedars-Sinai Research Division of Immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences; the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute; and the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.