Dr. O'Konek's lab studies vaccine adjuvants, which are substances added to vaccines to boost or direct the immune response. The team is translating its knowledge about vaccine adjuvants toward the development of vaccines that could potentially provide long-term protection against food allergies. They have identified a vaccine adjuvant, that when delivered intranasally with a food allergen, suppresses allergic immune responses and protects from reactivity upon allergen ingestion. Importantly, this adjuvanted allergen immunotherapy induces protection after only a few monthly doses.
Dr. O'Konek is a Research Investigator in the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences (MNIMBS) and the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center at the University of Michigan. She earned her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan in 2008. Dr. O’Konek completed postdoctoral training in the Vaccine Branch of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, where she specialized in immunology and vaccine development.
During her postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Jay Berzofsky, she identified a new subset of Natural Killer T lymphocytes and characterized vaccine-based approaches to activate this particular cell type to induce anti-tumor immune responses. In 2012, Dr. O’Konek joined MNIMBS where she studies innate immune activation by nanoemulsion vaccine adjuvants. Her research has focused on the development of vaccines for bacterial and viral pathogens and on the determination of the immunological mechanisms of action of these adjuvants.
Her current research focuses on utilizing a vaccine-based approach to modulate food allergy immune responses. She also is interested in the development of animal models for food allergy in order to further characterize the immunological pathways involved in food allergy and anaphylaxis. Her long term goals are to further the understanding of the immune pathways that mediate food allergy in order to develop new therapies to both treat and prevent the development of allergic hypersensitivity to foods.