NMU faculty involved in the Merck/AAAS research are Osvaldo Lopez and Leslie Putnam (left front and left back) and Mark Paulsen and John Rebers (right front and right back). They are pictured in Lopez's lab with some of the students who will participate.

Northern Receives Merck/AAAS Grant


NMU has received a grant for research that could lead to a more effective influenza vaccine and a better understanding of autoimmune diseases.

Fifteen universities nationwide were selected for funding through a competitive program sponsored by the Merck Institute for Science Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The project involves undergraduate students and encourages collaboration between the biology and chemistry departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Marquette General Hospital.

Four NMU faculty members will be involved in the project: Osvaldo Lopez and John Rebers from biology and Mark Paulsen and Leslie Putnam from chemistry. Their work will be based on Lopez’s expertise on early immune response against acute infection viruses such as influenza. It is this early immune response that clears the infection and can save a life.


Lopez said the hypothesis is that marginal zone B cells in the spleen, which are the first responders against the influenza virus, are the same cells that produce auto-antibodies in autoimmune diseases such as lupus and arthritis. Researchers also hypothesize that some chronic lymphocytic leukemias (CLL) might originate from these cells. So while our immune systems help defend us, Lopez said they also can attack us through autoimmune diseases or if cells from the immune system become cancer cells, such as leukemias, lymphomas and myelomas.


“CLL is the most common type of leukemia among people over 55," said Lopez. "There are two possible outcomes: people either die within 18 months or they can live for many more years, depending on the antibodies. Dr. [Ramakrishnan] Sasi of MGH is working with NMU to develop an in-house test to determine which outcome to expect. Very few centers in the world have this test. Even Mayo Clinic doesn’t have it. All of this is related to what we will be studying with this grant.


“My lab will produce the cells that are producing antibodies against influenza in a way that we can culture them by using biotechnological tools. Dr. Rebers’ lab will determine and study the genetic composition of the antibodies. Dr. Putnam will purify the antibodies and test how they bind not only to influenza, but to human molecules that are targets for autoimmune diseases. Dr. Paulsen will create molecular modeling of the antibodies so we know how they are positioned and react against some of the human molecules.”


One practical application of the research could be improving the influenza vaccine so it takes less time to develop and offer full resistance. Lopez sits on the NMU influenza preparedness committee and has collaborated with the CDC’s Dr. Ruben Donis, who is on the panel that issues the directive each February as to which influenza vaccine to use in each season. Lopez said the World Health Organization has warned that a flu pandemic will happen; it’s just a matter of when. But because the current vaccine takes three months to produce and requires at least 10 days to achieve its full effect after an injection, Lopez said there wouldn’t be a vaccine available for the first wave of a pandemic.


“The government has invested billions of dollars in CDC research to try to speed up the process,” he added. “I’m very proud to say that my students could produce a vaccine in an emergency situation. We grow the influenza virus in a lab using embryonic eggs from chickens. We infect the embryos with the virus, collect and quantify it. In an emergency situation, with no stock of vaccines available to everybody in the U.S., a vaccine against the pandemic strain could be produced at the immunology laboratory at NMU by our graduate students. Some people might not realize that we could do that here at Northern.”

NMU student Matt Kortes said his preliminary work related to the project was instrumental in his acceptance to medical school. "It provides valuable, basic science research with a translational component that could be very valuable in a pandemic and in the creation of next-generation vaccines."

Graduate teaching assistant Hope O'Donnell, who also works in Lopez's lab, added: "What interested me in this project is that even though we're studying influenza, the research could have applications beyond that to other things related to the pathways the immune system takes. It might be helpful, for example, in discovering a way to confer lifelong immunity to cytopathic viruses such as hepatitis C."


The winners of the Merck/AAAS grants are featured prominently in a full-page ad in the Feb. 8 issue of Science magazine. NMU will receive $60,000 over three years. Lopez said if the research is successful, NMU will be able to request more funding from a federal agency at a later date to extend the project.


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Updated: February 28, 2008

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