February 8, 2021

MHWFAC investigator receives funding for exploratory research

Jessica O’Konek, PhD, a research assistant professor at the MWFAC, has received a federal R21 grant to study characteristics of the infant immune system.

Understanding how the immature immune system responds to certain stimuli is necessary to develop new vaccines specifically designed for neonates, as well as to understand the development of immunological disorders such as allergy.

This grant will determine the effects of vaccination on mice at different stages of development, specifically comparing the responses in neonatal and infant mice with those in adult mice. 

“Vaccines are clearly effective in reducing the burden of infectious diseases and have been one of the greatest public health successes,” said Dr. O’Konek. “However, there’s currently a gap in our knowledge of how immune cells in infants respond to vaccines compared with more mature immune systems in older children and adults.

“Through this grant, we hope to gain insights that will be useful for the design of vaccines specifically for the administration to neonates and infants.”

Funds will be used for carrying out the experiments to characterize early life and adult immune responses to vaccines and to support technical staff and a post-doctoral fellow working on this project in the MHWFAC.

Dr. O’Konek is a Research Assistant Professor in the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences (MNIMBS) and the MHWFAC.  She earned her PhD 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. 

 In 2012, Dr. O’Konek joined MNIMBS where she studies 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.

An R21 grant, awarded by the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s biomedical research agency, is intended to support exploratory, novel studies that break new ground or extend previous discoveries toward new directions or applications.