CEIRS Trainee Spotlight: Improving Vaccines against Influenza by Targeting Neuraminidase with Mr. Teddy John Wohlbold

The Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS) Training Program is an ongoing CEIRS-funded training initiative. Graduate and postdoctoral students within and outside of CEIRS can gain experience in CEIRS laboratories, expanding their skillset and network and developing interdisciplinary research experience. This program provides access to valuable expertise and technology, career development, collaborative research, and an opportunity to grow connections within and outside of CEIRS. Trainees accepted into the program are provided travel grants covering the two-week training period and also present their work at the Annual CEIRS Network Meeting.

The DPCC Communications team interviewed Mr. Teddy John Wohlbold, an MD/PhD graduate student in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to hear more about his experience in the CEIRS Training Program at the University of Chicago. Mr. Wohlbold is mentored by Drs. Peter Palese and Florian Krammer, investigators with the Center for Research on Influenza Pathogenesis (CRIP), and worked in the Wilson lab, part of the New York Influenza Center of Excellence (NYICE), for two weeks last summer.

With the flu season upon us, many of us received a seasonal influenza vaccine, priming our immune system to protect us against this year’s circulating strains. The viral proteins included in the vaccine generate antibody responses protecting against closely related viruses. The dominant immune-stimulating protein, hemagglutinin, constantly mutates and evolves, necessitating annual vaccination. However, the stalk region of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, another surface-exposed viral protein, are more stable and could be targeted to generate broadly protective immunity against many strains that is less likely to lose effectiveness over time.

Refining antibody responses against the flu

Currently in his 4th year of training, and with many publications under his belt, Mr. Wohlbold studies how antibody responses against neuraminidase could be cross-protective against several strains of the influenza virus. The antigenic landscape, or suite of known protein signatures that lead to distinct immune responses, is poorly understood for neuraminidase. In a recent publication, Wohlbold et al. showed that mice immunized with this protein were better protected against lethal infection with distinct strains of the same subtype. This suggested that influenza vaccines in the clinic could be optimized to take advantage of the broad protection garnered by neuraminidase not achievable when targeting the rapidly changing hemagglutinin. Notably, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) showcased this study as one of the top 20 advances of 2015 in biomedical research. The award was a pleasant surprise for Mr. Wohlbold, who modestly said he was “a little shocked, but happy of course” for the acknowledgment.

A NYICE experience in Chicago

A previous collaboration working on H7 neutralizing antibodies between Dr. Krammer and Dr. Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago and NYICE paved the way for Mr. Wohlbold’s CEIRS Training Program opportunity. While the virology program at Mount Sinai is very strong, the Wilson lab’s expertise in immunology provided a rich area for growth. Dr. Wilson’s lab has developed high throughput methods of isolating human plasmablasts, a type of immune cell that makes antibodies, to identify and molecularly define global antibody response in patients. It was “a great opportunity to go to a new place to learn something I would never really learn at Mount Sinai,” said Mr. Wohlbold. He described the experience as “invaluable,” providing expertise relevant for future translational science and clinical work.

The experience strengthened their existing collaboration. Mr. Wohlbold hopes to now further study the neuraminidase-targeted antibody response in humans. In his ongoing collaboration with Dr. Wilson, he is working with Wilson lab postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Yaoqing Chen to examine the immune responses in patients vaccinated against, or previously infected with, influenza to see if there are differences in the antibodies generated against neuraminidase on a monoclonal level.

Tips for other trainees

When asked what advice to give to other potential trainees, Mr. Wohlbold suggested looking for “something you can’t find anywhere else.” Although Mount Sinai is a very collaborative research setting, the techniques and expertise learned in Dr. Wilson’s lab were unique to the training he received. Check out research experiences that afford something not available in your current lab and research institution. The training program provides an opportunity to learn supplemental skills that could be applied afterward and throughout a career.

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