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DIGS-BB Fellow Awards 2022

Awards given to five PhD students

Two people sitting on and three standing in front of a concrete block with a yellow metal sculpture
The recipients of the 2022 DIGS-BB Fellow Awards: Vittoria, Kavitha, Vaibhav, Isaac, Sean (from left to right)

Five of fifteen nominated DIGS-BB PhD students received the DIGS-BB Fellow Award 2022:

The award honours outstanding PhD students after the 1st year of thesis work and includes a price money of €2,000. It aims to help their research work, development of research skills, and to strengthen their research network. The allowance can be used to cover project consumables, attendance to workshops and conferences, research visits to collaborators’ labs, as well as to cover cost for a side project.

An outstanding performance during the 1st year of PhD work, along with a nomination and justification by their Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) in the 1st AR TAC meeting is required to be eligible for the award. The students presented the current state of their thesis work to the DIGS-BB Steering Committee in writing and in a talk. Detailed information on that work can be found below.

Vittoria Avaro

Olfaction is a highly specialized sensory modality in humans, yet it is the less studied among the five senses. Among the others, the olfactory system possesses an exceptional regenerative capacity: adult neurogenesis. It is indeed continuously sustain by the integration of newborn neurons at both peripheral and central level. But how is this process controlled? My project aims to understand if the experience of olfaction itself may influence adult neurogenesis and how, then, it may support olfactory functions.

Isaac Justice

Using the model systems M. mycoides and JCVI-Syn3 I work to engineer simpler living cell membranes in order to understand the design principles of living membranes. In particular, I study how specific lipidome compositions and complexities control both the biophysical properties of the membrane and the overall fitness of the cell. In addition to biophysical assays, I am using targeted transcriptomic and proteomic approaches to identify membrane proteins involved in lipid transport and membrane remodeling. Understanding the design principles of living membranes will be essential to advancing our ability to work with membranes as an engineerable tool.

Kavitha Krishnakumar

Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is a potentially curative treatment for blood-based cancers and disorders. However, graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) is a major inflammatory complication that develops in 30-50% of the transplant patients where the donor immune cells attack the host tissues leading to inflammatory lesions in multiple organs.
Regulatory T cells or “Tregs” are a small population of immune cells that have the ability to suppress an overactive immune system. Our group at the CRTD have shown that Treg cell therapy is a feasible and safe treatment option for treatment-refractory GvHD patients. The aim of my project is to advance this therapy by developing organ targeted Treg cell products to increase the efficacy and overcome the current limitations. Organ specificity will be achieved by utilizing the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) technology which has revolutionized cancer therapy. This genetic modification would help us redirect Tregs to the site of the GvHD attack and provide local immunosuppression. The pre-clinical development will be carried out in close collaboration with the Feldmann lab at HZDR and the CRTD Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility ensuring early focus on clinical translation.

Vaibhav Mahajan

Cancer cells reside in a mechanically altered environment. It is important to understand the response of tumor cells to this remodelled tumor microenvironment, especially in a physiologically relevant 3D context. I use a synthetic hydrogel system (whose stiffness and degradability can be varied) to understand how single cells and spheroids formed from cancer cell lines adapt their mechanics to the mechanics of the microenvironment.