MEDx Reflects: Exploring the medicine and engineering intersection with Genevieve Fouda
By Brittany Vekstein
Genevieve Fouda, MD, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the Duke School of Medicine. She is also a member of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. Fouda’s research focuses on understanding infant immune response to infection and vaccination. Currently, her work focuses on the transmission of HIV from mother to child.
In 2017, MEDx and the Duke Center for AIDS Research supported a collaboration between Dr. Fouda and Dr. Joel Collier, Theodore Kennedy Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, to pursue a project entitled, “ A Supramolecular, Self-Adjuvanting, Neonatal HIV Vaccine.” Their pilot project led to an R01 grant from the NIH, publications with a third manuscript that is under revision, and interdisciplinary research experience for graduate students.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration on this project?
I teamed up with Joel Collier, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, on a project to identify a novel vaccine strategy. The goal of our project is to develop a supramolecular HIV vaccine. We are using nanofiber platforms developed by Dr. Collier that are conjugated with HIV Envelope peptide or proteins. The immunogenicity of these vaccines are tested in animal models. Preliminary studies in mice have indicated that nanofiber-conjugated HIV Envelope proteins induce higher magnitude and broader antibody responses. Moreover, in rabbits we observed that nanofiber conjugation can modulate the glycosylation profile of the antibodies induced by the HIV Envelope proteins. We are currently testing vaccine constructs in non-human primates.
Was there something specific from your prior research, or the status of the HIV vaccine field, that made you realize you wanted to engage with engineering?
Developing a HIV vaccine has proven challenging and it is possible that a novel platform will be required to induce broad protective responses. Dr. Collier has developed nanofiber platforms that enhances antibody responses and allow antigen multimerization. As the antigen valency may be important for an HIV vaccine, this type of platform needed to be tested in the setting of HIV vaccination.
What have been some highlights of this collaboration?
My collaboration with Dr. Collier has been wonderful. Because of our distinct expertise, I have learned a lot working on this project. Moreover, through this collaboration young scientists have been mentored including a PhD candidate in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology who recently defended his thesis, and a BME PhD candidate who defended a couple of months ago.
Has your collaboration allowed you to pursue different questions or pursue questions using different tools?
Our original proposal was based on conjugating HIV Envelope glycoproteins to a self-assembling nanofiber (Q11). We have now tested peptides targeting specific regions of the HIV Envelope and trimers, and we have used different nanofiber platforms.
Do your engineering collaborators provide different perspectives or go about research in different ways that you found interesting?
I am always fascinated about the discussion on the methodology for conjugation. Aside from Dr. Collier, we have had wonderful graduate students involved that contributed new and interesting ideas.
Have your trainees benefited from your collaboration with Engineering faculty? Have you mentored any engineering trainees?
My graduate student was co-mentored by Dr. Collier and spent time across the two labs. They definitely benefited from different perspectives!
I have been on the thesis defense committees of engineering trainees working on our project or related projects.
Can you provide any advice to someone who is pursuing these collaborations?
Collaborating outside your field can be a great way to diversify your research portfolio and to address research questions with a new angle or perceptive. I would definitely encourage early career investigators in biomedical science to explore collaboration with engineers!
Read Nature Nanotechnology publication on “Advances in nanomaterial vaccine strategies to address infectious diseases impacting global health”
The MEDx Reflects series highlights the many successes of collaborations from our affiliated faculty and MEDx investigators. We hope to inspire others to think about how collaborating across disciplines can enhance research. If you are interested in sharing your story, please reach out to Brittany Vekstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), communications specialist for MEDx.