The Center for Evolutionary and Theoretical Immunology (CETI), which is centered in the Biology Department, under the direction of Distinguished Professor Eric (Sam) Loker, was recently awarded $5.4 million for five years from The National Insitutes of Health (NIH), Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program.
This is the third and final phase of COBRE funding. Phases I and II totaled $21.1 million. Loker, who is also the PI, has been overseeing CETI for the past 11 years.
CETI’s thematic focus area, in evolutionary-comparative and theoretical immunology, stems from a unique confluence of faculty with shared interests in the Departments of Biology and Computer Science at UNM and at the Los Alamos National Laboratories. With COBRE support, since 2003, CETI has employed approximately 95 people and has contributed significantly to the physical research facilities on campus. CETI investigators have now published 634 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature, Science, PNAS and many other top tier journals, and successfully competed for $57.4 million (this includes phases I & II of COBRE funding) in research funds.
In addition, one of CETI’s key goals is to improve and maintain scientific infrastructure to enable its scientists to be even more competitive in securing extramural support. Along with a supportive Administrative Core, three extensively-used scientific Cores have been established: a Molecular Biology Core and a Controlled Environments Core, both established in Phase I of funding, and a Cell Biology Core established in Phase II. The goals for Phase III are to further improve and expand the three scientific Cores through the purchase of additional equipment and the hiring of technical support.
Projects using the Core facilities include Immune regulation at the fetal-maternal interface, a project led by Dr. Robert Miller, a Core director and chair of the Biology Department. According to Miller, the immune system is capable of distinguishing self-tissue from foreign invaders, often with the goals of protecting the former and destroying the latter. This creates a problem for those animals that birth live young following a prolonged pregnancy. How the immune system avoids attacking the embryo that is genetically half foreign has been a central question in immunology for almost 60 years. This project will provide a greater understanding of how the immune system is regulated to deal with pregnancy and has a potential broader impact on reproductive health.
Another project, Skin Commensals and mucosal immunity cooperation during stress is led by Dr. Irene Salinas, an assistant professor in the Biology Department and a COBRE mentee. Salinas’s research focuses on the evolution of mucosal immunity in fish. Fish, like all vertebrates, suffer from stress. When stressed, fish skin darkens and secretes high amounts of mucus. Salinas and her students study how the mucosal immune system and commensal bacteria in fish respond to stress. Her research could impact vaccine development, aquaculture, and fish farming.
Loker leads the project Transmission and control of schistosomiasis in Kenya. Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease second only to malaria in terms of its impact on physical and emotional suffering. It is found mainly in Africa and South America and affects more than 200 million people world-wide. People become infected when working, swimming or bathing in water containing snails harboring the infective larval stages of schistosomes. These larvae penetrate human skin and develop into adult schistosomes that can severely damage the liver, spleen and urinary bladder via their egg-laying activities.
Loker’s current research focuses on the development of sustainable schistosomiasis control, and has at its core the study of the immunological interplay between snails and schistosomes.
To further increase its user base, CETI will continue its popular Pilot Project Program (award small grants of $50,000 to fund projects and generate data that will indicate the feasibility and appropriateness of the research prior to applying for additional extramural funds) and its Waiver program (equipment fee waivers). To go along with these programs, CETI offers all participants extensive mentoring to increase their likelihood of securing their own extramural funding and increasing their prospects for long-term success in academia.
The NIH COBRE Center for Evolutionary and Theoretical Immunology (CETI) has provided the means for the University of New Mexico and the State of New Mexico to acquire a critical mass of talented scientific investigators.